“He was a pure artist. The kind you meet once or twice in a lifetime.”
King Hu, the subject of documentary The King of Wuxia, was once named among the five greatest filmmakers on Earth. Kicking off Metrograph’s 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Swordfighting Heroes Edition, this is the story of how the world failed him.
Directed by Lin Jing-Jie, this documentary epic about one of the supreme authors of epics is both a lesson plan and a lament. It’s a daunting length at 216 minutes, divided into two halves: “Part 1: The Prophet Who Was Once Here,” and “Part 2: The Heartbroken Man on the Horizon.” This divide is essential, and one of the most compelling parts of this excellent film.
Documentaries that attempt to sum up the life or myth of a great person attempt to achieve the unachievable. When that life’s reach expands to thousands, or when that life’s path winds through dozens of jobs and multiple countries, even more so. Some documentaries become docuseries, like Netflix’s The Last Dance (2020) telling a sliver of the myth of Michael Jordan across 10 episodes. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) tells the life story of Mr. Rogers in just 95 minutes. Lin Jing-Jie decided that the story of King Hu would be best told by those who loved him most in the way they seem to remember him: before and after. Throughout Part 1, Shih Chun, the star of A Touch of Zen (1971), Dragon Inn (1967), Legend of the Mountain (1979), Raining in the Mountain (1979), and The Wheel of Life (1983), takes the camera on a tour of the shooting locations he worked on with his mentor. Meanwhile, Henry Chan (Legend of the Mountain), Cheng Pei-pei (Come Drink with Me), Chun Smith, and more, cinematographers, actresses, and directors, they all share stories and insights into King Hu’s filmography and process. From John Woo (Hand of Death/Hard Boiled) to Hsu Feng (Dragon Inn), Part 1 is the story of a meticulous, once-in-a-generation artist who elevated everyone around him into stars, his core collaborators almost all being brand-new or barely experienced filmmakers when he took them under his wing.
Amongst the stories and praises of King Hu, these wuxia pioneers break down the influence of American westerns, Peking opera, and the logic behind techniques like trampolines vs. wires, smoke vs. fog, and jumping into lakes to get real height on the insert shot of a single acrobatic flip. This rousing section is a crash course in wuxia film history, filmmaking, and legend. It’s not only fun, it’s also fit for any film school instructor’s rainy-day lesson plan.
“People don’t forget a master. And they’ll miss him. You’ll learn from him for the rest of your life.”
But in Part 2, Shih Chun and others stop taking cameras to exotic mountain tops and bamboo forests and start taking them to apartments, restaurants, and city wharves. Part 2 is the story of an artist who wouldn’t sell out when the economic winds of industry demanded it, at one point refusing actual cold hard cash brought to his door for a poor product. Taking you past King’s untimely death to his legacy today, the true purpose of the film finally reveals itself in Part 2. The King of Wuxia is not just a film that memorializes an artist who should stand next to Jim Henson (The Muppets) and Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart) in the canon of gone-too-soon artists, it is also a love story, a much-needed act of closure from the film crew who still call him “Director.” His friends, loved ones, and collaborators fill in the story of his life with tearful stories, laughs, regrets, and real anger at the world for not seeing the genius they saw. They paint a portrait of a man who loved to talk and drink with friends, who lived among stacks of books, and who just wanted to work again. In this way, The King of Wuxia turns the tragedies of his late-period slump and death into a bittersweet, life-affirming story of love between life-long friends.
It’s a fitting tribute, if a little long, but then again, I don’t think the director of the three-hour epic A Touch of Zen would mind the time.
“I admired him so much. He just kept thinking about what he wanted to do and could do. Just think at that time he was…at rock bottom. But he couldn’t help it. I once described him as a twilight samurai. However sharp his sword was, only he himself knew.”
Screening Friday, April 24th, 7pm at the Metrograph Theater in NYC at 7 Ludlow Street.
For information on this screening and the other nine films, head to the official 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Swordfighting Heroes Edition webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.