2023 Old School Kung Fu Fest: KING OF WUXIA is a Masterclass on King Hu

The three hour plus doc is a must for fans and for those looking to get into the director’s filmography

One of the big draws for me personally for this year’s Old School Kung Fu fest was The King Of Wuxia, a 3 and a half hour deep dive on the Chinese auteur King Hu, who some would argue is the father of the modern martial arts film. After directing the Shaw Brothers classic Come Drink with Me, Hu decamped to Taiwan and turned in such Wuxia classics such as A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn — that while embracing a realism unlike their Shaw Brothers counterparts, infused the real world with a kinetic action and visual style inspired by Chinese art from the period he was channeling. Admittedly, I am more of a hand-to-hand guy when it comes to my Kung-Fu flicks, so I was hoping for a crash course on these wuxia classics along with one beloved filmmaker of this particular sub-genre.

What director Lin Jing-jie delivers here is comparable to some of my favorite tomes on cinema. It hooks you in with the familiar filmography and then lure you down the rabbit hole, enlightening you about the man responsible.

The King Of Wuxia is broken up into two parts. Part One focuses on King Hu’s impressive Wuxia filmography film by film, and features a who’s-who panel of Chinese cinema with directors such as John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ann Hui dissecting Hu’s films alongside production designers, cinematographers and film critics. The focus here is not just on these amazing films and how they came to be, but how King Hu appeared to be a jack of all trades on set, not only directing, but acting out scenes, making props and even supplying detailed sketches and fabric for his costumes. While the film doesn’t shy away from the themes and research that went into the historical epics, they are very purposefully trying to illuminate how hands-on the director was. Given Part One is roughly two hours, it’s draining every second to show how Hu exuded a Kubrickian level of control over the finished product, with a single film sometimes shooting for nearly three years.

Part One makes sure to hammer home how craftsmanship was key to the director’s approach and the control he exerted over the quality of the production of his films. But unlike Kubrick, who achieved this perfection with a relentless iron fist, Lin Jing-jie is very clear to highlight the humanity of Hu, firstly through how his actors and crews who were very much like close knit family where everyone would pitch in to help Hu achieve his vision. Secondly it digs into how because of his jack of all trades approach he imbued this ethos of doing anything to get the film finished into those around him. The crux in Part One is the fact that he was an uncompromising and relentless perfectionist when it came to film, but not at any cost.

The second half takes the filmography and provides an illuminating and gut wrenching context on the man that birthed these classics. The son of a concubine, King would make his way into the film industry as first an artist, then an actor, slowly working his way up the rungs eventually to director. This path helps to explain how he could effectively have done nearly any job on set, because he’s simply done them all. This part wastes nearly no time catching up to the end of the last film with King Hu migrating to LA in 1984, way before John Woo was a household name. The film then tracks a project that was never finished called The Battle of Ono a fictional account of a group of Chinese laborer who were forced by the Americans to build the railroads and after finding a gold deposit fought to keep it. The film shows King toiling away in LA refusing to settle for anything but complete creative control of a project that sadly would never see the light of day.

Lin Jing-jie’s approach to me really spotlighted how manipulative American docs have become in this age of Netflix. Sure, there’s an agenda here, but it’s not force fed and cliffhangered into you in a way that feels so heavy handed. Jing-jie instead gives the audience the breadth and time for King to earn your respect, and for you to fully vest into this man’s story before pulling the curtain back on his origin. He does this by first informing the audience of not only his work and achievements, but his work ethic that crafted those films and inspired those around him. How he follows that up will catch most off guard since that dread of what was to come would have been baked into the viewer out of fear of them turning out if this was an American production.

The King Of Wuxia is a deeply engrossing doc worthy of its subject. It’s a monument to not only the man but his filmography, which is no easy feat. I can definitely see this doc eventually landing in a Criterion box on King’s filmography. This way fans can discover the story of the man behind these classics.

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