King Hu’s films take place during ancient Chinese dynasties, with bandits and pirates running into imperial guards transporting prisoners. Cages break; later, a shy young man meets a mysterious, beautiful young woman at an inn. Villains burst in, and she leaps up, daggers drawn. The room explodes with clanging metal, whirling kicks, and crunching bones while bodies glide as gracefully as swinging swords. Opponents move in dancelike rhythm until constricting social structures are chopped down and individual freedom is claimed with force.
“King Hu’s martial arts films were different from the average fare,” recalls critic, scholar, and Hu authority Stephen Teo, in an e-mail. “They were better-made and truer to history, as well as more character-oriented. His importance as a filmmaker lies in his ability to integrate a very Chinese sensibility of history, art, and aesthetics with character and action, which is stunningly choreographed in a martial arts operatic style all his own.”
Eight of Hu’s 11 completed features, including all his martial arts films, will be screened in “King Hu and the Art of Wuxia” (a martial arts film genre focused on swordplay), running Friday through March 24 at the Harvard Film Archive. Born into a wealthy Beijing family in 1932, Hu (originally Hu Jinjuang) came to cinema after first studying opera. In 1949, the same year the communist People’s Liberation Army took control of Beijing, Hu moved to Hong Kong. After working several odd jobs, including as a film actor, he signed a contract with Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong’s most important film studio.
Hu acted in nearly 40 films, in addition to serving as a set decorator, scriptwriter, and assistant director. The success of director Lee Hanxiang’s opera adaptation “The Love Eterne” (1963), which Hu worked on as an assistant director, allowed him to direct “Sons of the Good Earth” (1965), which he also co-wrote and starred in as a fictional resistance leader liberating an occupied village during World War II. (“Sons” isn’t in the series.)
When his follow-up film, about a real-life resistance leader, was canceled, Hu turned to childhood memories. He transformed the opera “The Drunkard Beggar” into his first wuxia film, “Come Drink With Me” (1966). The film follows the efforts of an unshaven laggard with secret supernatural powers named Drunken Cat (Hueh Yua) to assist Golden Swallow (Pei-Pei Cheng, a ballet artist who subsequently became a wuxia star), a petite, liquor-swilling markswoman sent to an inn to rescue her captured brother from thugs.
Sequences in which Cat cheerfully leads children in song (they include an adolescent Jackie Chan) underscore how carefully the whole film is orchestrated. Whether in a fight scene at the inn or a love scene at Cat’s pagoda, full of vibrating plants and flowing water, the disparate parts of each frame are moving together and challenging viewers to keep up with them.
Hu, chafing at studio demands for more opulent and impersonal filmmaking, moved to Taiwan to work independently. His subsequent “Dragon Inn” (1967) shows disguised sympathizers arriving at an isolated inn to fight for a brother and sister who have been unjustly condemned to death. Two of the rescuers are also brother and sister. The film continues Hu’s interest in granting freedom of movement to both genders, with combat allowing women and men to attain equal grace.
Like Hu’s other films, it connects physical and spiritual movement. The more beautifully precise the characters’ motions, the closer they come to achieving a Zen ideal of integration within the natural world. This is clear in his best-known film, “A Touch of Zen” (1971). Along with “Dragon Inn,” it’s one of two screening in a new print. Its opening image of flies in a spider’s web foreshadows people being subjected to greater powers. The fugitive swordswoman Yang (Hsu Feng) and her bookish lover Ku (Roy Chiao) battle corrupt imperial guards through a town and into forests and mountains, where the cosmic forces that wind and swinging bamboo represent suggest they will triumph not because they are better fighters, but because they are more complete people.
A key sequence presents a wounded monk turning into Buddha. The characters regard the figure, partially hidden from viewers, with shock and wonder. Hu’s characters would continue searching for enlightenment as the filmmaker transitioned from wuxia films to slower-paced, gently comic spiritual journeys, at the same time that Chinese cinema was preferring contemporary kung fu to period swordplay. The late “Raining in the Mountain” and “Legend on the Mountain” (both 1979, and both shot in South Korea) present monasteries and temples where action scenes occur only sporadically as monks and secular companions debate how best to live in nature.
Hu’s broad concern with man’s place in the world partly suggests why mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese filmmakers, regardless of genre, continue to be influenced by him after his death, in 1997 at 64. HFA programmer David Pendleton writes by e-mail that, in addition to overt King Hu tributes by filmmakers such as Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Tsui Hark (“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”), and Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”), Hu’s status “as one of the great filmmakers of the human body in motion” has influenced aspects of the work of non-martial arts filmmakers. Pendleton uses as examples the alternation between movement and stillness in such films of Wong Kar-Wai as “In the Mood for Love” and the attention to landscape paid by Hou Hsiao-Hsien (“Three Times”).
The poet of loneliness Tsai Ming-Liang, also influenced by Hu, sets his 2003 film, “Goodbye Dragon Inn,” on the last night of a Taipei movie theater. Its closing film is “Dragon Inn.” We study the faces of scattered audience members, including two of King Hu’s actors, present as though bearing witness to younger, freer selves.
As Tsai’s camera rests on an actor, a voice on the soundtrack of Hu’s film cries that a man’s spirit will not go away. The haunting moment pays tribute to a filmmaker who believed that magic could be found not just in past and future lives, but also in this one.