Taiwanese director King Hu is a legend of wuxia filmmaking, with classics like Come Drink With Me, Dragon Inn, and A Touch of Zen to his name. 25 years after his death, director Lin Jing-jie and producer Steven Tu have made their own King Hu epic, looking back at the life and work of a true master.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay connected with Steven at VIFF 2022 to discuss King Hu’s films, his lasting legacy in martial arts cinema, and the evolution of The King of Wuxia from short documentary to 220-minute epic.
Nicholas Lay: What inspired you and Lin Jing-jie to make this definitive tribute to King Hu?
Steven Tu: Director Lin and I started working on the film around five years ago. In the beginning we were aiming for a smaller documentary, maybe 30 to 40 minutes, but then we started to shoot and quickly realised that it would be much bigger project.
Director Lin is a great documentary filmmaker who has covered famous people many times in the past, and he was keen to do the same for King Hu. He realised that, although he knew about Hu, he did not know enough to make the film he wanted, so he began to research all of Hu’s work, complete or incomplete, and every aspect of his life. The challenge was that there had already been extensive research, essays, and interviews on King Hu in Taiwan, so we needed to present a different perspective to make our documentary special. The approach we took was to not only focus on King Hu’s work, which many people already know, but also his personal life behind the scenes. We wanted to give Chinese audiences to the chance to see the real King Hu.
NL: Many legends show up to talk about King Hu, from John Woo to Sammo Hung. How did you manage to track down so many important figures from Hu’s life?
ST: It was not easy to track them down, but when we did, everyone said yes, they wanted to be involved. The challenge was that they were located all over the place, and they’re all very busy. Shih Chun [Hu’s main leading man] was in Beijing, then in Hong Kong, so we had to find the right place and the right time to make the interviews happen. Most importantly of all, we were able to locate Hu’s close friends from his later years in LA. They came from the movie industry and other areas in the region, and contributed so much to our knowledge of what Hu did in the years leading up to his death. Most people do not know about his time in California, and at first we did not expect to find those people, so it was a welcome surprise and gave us the new perspective we needed.
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NL: You visit several of Hu’s greatest cinematic locations with Shih Chun. How important was he to the production?
ST: Shih Chun was our greatest asset. He worked with King Hu on many films and was his student and close friend until Hu moved to LA. Director Lin wanted the audience to follow in the footsteps of Shih Chun’s journey and give him the opportunity to recall old memories from his days working with Hu. The best way to do that was to take Shih Chun to the various locations, let him take it in, and unlock those memories. Luckily, Shih Chun is healthy and his memory is strong. He led us to the main river locations in Taiwan and was easily the most active person there, walking faster than all the young people on the production team! It was exciting to see him find those locations and bring back all these beautiful memories of his time with King Hu.
NL: Hu’s films helped put Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema on the map. What’s his status amongst younger audiences in Taiwan 50 years later?
ST: We tried to release the film theatrically in Taiwan this month and the biggest challenge for us has been reaching younger audiences and trying to get them to come and watch the film. Most of King Hu’s films have already been restored in Taiwan and are easily accessible, but I don’t think his films are widely known amongst younger people. This is one of the reasons we wanted to make the film, to show the next generation that King Hu was not just a master of wuxia films, but that he was a true artist who took the lead on every single aspect of his productions.
There is not a director like Hu working today. One of the ways Taiwan’s younger audiences could be exposed to Hu’s work is through more modern wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which has been restored and is back in theatres in Taiwan at the moment. I teach at a college here and asked my students to go and see it, as Ang Lee was heavily influenced by King Hu. He is important to all Chinese filmmakers and we want people to understand why.
NL: Which of King Hu’s films do you consider his most influential? What is your personal favourite?
ST: Dragon Inn (1967) was important as it was the first of Hu’s films to really do well at the box office in Taiwan. It was also very successful in Hong Kong and exposed Hong Kong filmmakers to this new wave of wuxia cinema. The concept of the inn was extremely important as Hu used the location many times as the base on which to build the action, and that started with Dragon Inn.
My personal favourite when I was young was The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) because it was a more complicated narrative with several female leads and heroes, each of whom had their own style. When I grew up, I started to enjoy the rest of Hu’s films, like Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen (1971). As I get older, I find myself enjoying his films more and more. I tell my students not to watch his films chronologically, but to start with Dragon Inn, move through The Fate of Lee Khan and the others, and have A Touch of Zen as the finale. That way you can truly appreciate it.
NL: In the 25 years since he passed, has any filmmaker come close to matching King Hu’s unique philosophy and style?
ST: I don’t think there is anyone like King Hu, but the closest is probably Tsui Hark. He has long experimented with new movie-making techniques, especially in the wuxia genre. In the documentary he explains that he learned a lot from King Hu and that he really loved Dragon Inn, which is obvious as he later produced two different versions of the same story. When he did that, he brought in new ideas and techniques to put his own mark on the films. Of all the wuxia filmmakers, he is definitely the closest to King Hu.
NL: Bruce Lee was a contemporary of King Hu and exploded in popularity around the same time. Had he lived, do you think they could have worked together?
ST: That’s a great question! I’ve never thought about that possibility, but if I had to guess I would say they could not have worked together. They were too different. Bruce Lee had his own style and would have insisted on too many different things based on his own opinions of films and filmmaking, and King Hu would have done the same, so it would not have worked. If they had worked together, I can only imagine that would have ended up fighting for real!
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NL: Do you have another favourite martial arts filmmaker aside from King Hu?
ST: My other favourite is Chang Cheh, who made a lot of great martial arts films and whose style is totally different to King Hu. They developed their styles at the same time, but Chang Cheh’s films were more violent, with broken bones and swords cutting into the body, which made them exciting to watch. Compared to Hu, his style was pure entertainment, and the different aesthetics were always enjoyable. My favourite film of his is One-Armed Swordsman, which came out in 1967, the same year as Dragon Inn. Both were very popular at the box office in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and went on to become two of the most important and influential wuxia films of all time.
NL: Thanks so much for taking the time to nerd out on martial arts films with me.
ST: Thank-you so much!
The King of Wuxia is currently on the festival circuit. Keep an eye out for future release dates in the west.