In the 1960's, there was such an over production of Mandarin wu xia films (knight-errant movies with heroes possessing fantastical,martial arts powers), which flooded the market with mediocre productions that threatened the survival of the martial arts film. Then one man came along, waved his magic scalpel and gave Hong Kong cinema a much needed face-lift. Appropriately, his name was King Hu. A leader among filmmakers, with his cinematic approach and fight choreographical aesthetics, Hu changed the direction of swordsman films and set the standard for all martial art stylized action movies to come. And it all started at Shaw Brothers.
Born April 29, 1932, in Beijing, China, Hu enrolled at the National Art Institute in Beijing where he developed his appreciation for traditional Chinese history and opera. Coming to Hong Kong in 1949, he serpentined through the postage-stamp colony as a proof-reader, writer, actor and graphic draftsman getting his first cinematic job with the design department at the Great Wall Film Company which led to his acting gig as an extra in the company's production of Humiliation For Sale (1955). It was directed by Yen Chuan, whose assistant at the time was the future Shaws acclaimed director, Li Han-hsiang.
Through his connection with Li Han-hsiang, Hu was persuaded to join Shaw Brothers in 1958 as a screenwriter and actor where he first ended up writing two screenplays for Yen Chuan, including the Huangmei Opera hit The Bride Napping (1960).
His passion and experience in theater were further manifested when under the watchful eye of Shaw Brothers’ new hot-shot director Li Han-hsiang, Hu wrote and co-directed the critically acclaimed Mandarin operetta The Story Of Sue San (1962). This success created a second opportunity to co-direct with Li the award winning, musical, The Love Eterne (1962), which he also acted in as the teacher. Hu was noted to have directed the "faster" portions of the film, as his films would eventually become characterized by his characters' perpetual motion.
After acting in The Love Eterne (1962), in 1964, Hu became a fully-fledged director when he wrote, starred (as a Captain) and directed Sons Of Good Earth (1964), a war drama set in Northern China during the Sino-Japanese war. Because of the sensitive political situation at the time, the local film version was severely edited and could only be seen in its entirety in Malaysia and Singapore. Due to the Sons Of Good Earth's enthusiastic response and success, Hu was then poised to make cinematic history. This film also was awarded for the best screenwriter, best editing and also the special awards for the cultural achievements awardsin the 4th Golden Horse Awards.
In 1966, Hu wrote and directed the up-and-coming Queen of Kung-fu films Cheng Pei-pei in one of the most important films of the genre, Come Drink With Me(1966). It was not only the precursor for many martial art movies to come, such as the four Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but it also made Hu a wu xia film pioneer by changing the hero image of post-war martial art films, depicting them as righteous commoners devoted to the cause of justice. It was also the first of what was to become known as the "King Hu, Inn Tetralogy."
The film was also a superb example of how Hu melded the martial aspects of Beijing opera with the stoic brutality of the popular Japanese samurai films to create a whole new lyrical realm in filmmaking and action swordplay.
He left Shaw Brothers in 1966 and continued his "Inn Tetralogy" directing in Taiwan with Dragon Inn (1967), Four Moods - Anger (1970) , and The Fate Of Lee Khan (1973). With his Cannes award-winning A Touch Of Zen (1971) and successful The Valiant Ones (1975), in 1978, Hu was selected by the International Film Guide in England as one of the Five Directors of the Year.
In 1979, Hu shot two, 3-hour long films, back to back in Korea, Raining In The Mountain (1979) and Legend On The Mountain (1979). Legend In The Mountain was scripted by his wife Chong Ling and with it, Hu won the 1979 Best Director Golden Horse Award. This film also won 5 other awards in the same year.
After a run of comedies, Hu returned to his wu xia roots receiving a co-directing credit in the Tsui Hark produced, Ching Siu-tung directed Swordsman (1990). Prior to his death on January 14, 1997, Hu was reportedly preparing to work with John Woo on an epic Chinese film, a movie that would have undoubtedly put him back into the international limelight in the vein of his greatest accomplishment, Come Drink With Me(1966).
(Film available in Celestial’s Shaw Brothers Film Library with year of production/theatrical release)
The Story Of Sue San (1962)
Sons Of Good Earth (1964)
Come Drink With Me (1966)