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The Director Who Changed the Cinema: King Hu's Retrospective at the 17th Five Flavours Asian Film Festival

22 August 2023

This year's retrospective is dedicated to yet another extraordinary film author, King Hu, whose work has delighted spectators across Asia, leaving a global and lasting impact on popular cinema. The retrospective includes Hu's most important digitally restored films, with some never before screened in Poland.

In mysterious inns in the middle of nowhere, enemies and allies cross paths, Buddhist monasteries teem with intrigue in their nooks and crannies, and bamboo forests become the stage for impressive duels. Proud and exceptionally skilled female warriors don vivid costumes, engaging in clashes choreographed like world-class ballet performances. These elements are interwoven with political intrigues, philosophical questions, and spiritual enlightmensmystical experiences, all seasoned with a touch of slapstick comedy.

Like many other Chinese-speaking authors, King Hu began his career at the renowned Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. His breakthrough came early with his second feature, "Come Drink with Me," which presented an innovative take on wuxia—the most important genre in Chinese cinema. Cheng Pei-Pei, the actress portraying Golden Swallow in "Come Drink with Me," was a professional ballet dancer before embarking on her acting career, and her prior experience proved crucial during the filming of duels. Today, she is celebrated as one of the first heroines of action cinema.

Hu was a restless perfectionist and experimenter who initiated a dialogue between Western and samurai cinema. He extensively studied history, art, and Beijing opera, meticulously controlling every detail on set, from camera settings to costumes and final editing. To create even more epic films, Hu moved to Taiwan, where he produced his most important works, "Dragon Inn" and "Touch of Zen." "Dragon Inn" sold out throughout the region, from Korea to the Philippines, becoming a cultural phenomenon. The monumental "Touch of Zen," a cinematic masterpiece, earned the distinction of being the first Hong Kong film awarded at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.

Throughout his three-decade-long career, King Hu completed only 11 films, the most significant being wuxia works that presented a fresh perspective on the genre. His work inspired an entire new generation of cinema masters, including John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and even Tsai Ming-Liang, all of whom grew up with Hu's films and reference his works.

Thanks to digital restoration, audiences at film festivals around the world, starting with Cannes in 2014 have had the opportunity to be amazed by the extraordinary cinema of King Hu, an author who should be considered on a par with Kurosawa and Leone.

The Retrospective Program is presented in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of Taiwan and the Taiwanese Institute of Film and Audiovisual Arts. All films will be screened from digitally restored copies.

King Hu Retrospective Program

Dragon Inn

Longmen kezhan
Taiwan, Hong Kong 1967, 111'
[available online]

During the Ming Dynasty, the first eunuch of the evil emperor, Cao Shaoqin, leads to the execution of the loyal Minister of Defense, Yu Qian. Yu's children are sentenced to exile from China and head towards the western border. Nevertheless, Cao sends his best agent to eliminate the minister's descendants. They all meet at the border, at the Dragon Inn... King Hu's Taiwanese debut is a dynamic action showcase set in confined spaces, which became a stunning success and challenged the cinematic dominance of Hong Kong.

A Touch of Zen

Xia nu
Taiwan, Hong Kong 1971, 200'
[available online]

Gu is a poor teacher who lives with his mother in a crumbling house. One day, he meets a woman who has just moved into a nearby ruined fort. The beautiful and mysterious Miss Yang is the daughter of an honest official who exposed the wrongdoing of the cruel eunuch Wei. After spending a night with Yang, Gu decides to help her in the fight against Wei's warriors. He embarks on a journey that will become his spiritual path to enlightenment. A masterpiece of wuxia, a masterful action film with the famous bamboo forest fight, and a philosophical tractate all in one!

Legend of the Mountain

Shan zhong zhuan qi
Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea 1979, 192'
[available online]

A young disciple named Ho embarks on a journey to a mountain monastery to copy a Buddhist sutra with the power to control evil spirits. Here, he encounters mysterious figures - an elderly woman and her beautiful daughter, who have a plan for him. Soon, in the extraordinary scenery, rich with the colors of lush nature, a dramatic battle between good and evil unfolds. "The Legend of the Mountain" is a thriller and a horror story in one, a film of exceptional beauty (shot in South Korea!) and expertly crafted action, a narrative and rhythm worth immersing yourself in.

Raining in the Mountain

Kong shan ling yu
Taiwan, Hong Kong 1979, 120'
[available online]

At the invitation of a dying abbot, dignified guests arrive at a beautifully located high-mountain Buddhist monastery. They are all former disciples of the spiritual leader, but their visit has a sinister purpose. Each of them covets an ancient manuscript housed here... A dangerous game ensues among cunning individuals, full of fleeting alliances, betrayals, and lies. Although it's a lighter film from the master, where the labyrinthine monastery becomes the stage for almost slapstick-like conflicts, there are still epic moments and serious reflections on human nature.

The Wheel of Life

Da lunhui
Taiwan 1983, 104'
[available online]

A novella-style film created by three of Taiwan's leading directors. The stories unfold in different eras, where a trio of the same actors reincarnate. The same motifs reappear in different settings, forming a Buddhist tractate on the essence of love and betrayal, life and death.

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