about the artist
King Hu (Hu Jinquan [1932-1997]) was born in Beijing to a well-to-do family where he learned to master calligraphy at a young age. In 1949, as a student in Hong Kong, he found he could neither return to China nor receive money from his family, so he held a variety of jobs in the film industry. In 1958, he joined the major Shaw Brothers Studio where he worked as a set decorator, actor, scriptwriter, and assistant director. His friendship with another Chinese exile, Li Han-hsiang, led to their collaboration on a “plum opera,” The Love Eterne (1963) inspired by a beloved Chinese legend. The film became a huge success in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora.
Working solo, he made Sons of the Good Earth in 1965, and then his first martial arts (wuxia pian) film, Come Drink with Me (1966), which launched the career of Cheng Pei-Pei who, as “Golden Swallow,” is the first woman warrior (xia nü) in King Hu’s oeuvre. Hu left the Shaw Brothers in 1966 and moved to Taiwan where, with Li Han-hsiang, he opened an independent studio as well as a training school for young actors. This is how he discovered Hsu Feng and gave her a part in his next project, Dragon Inn (1967), which was a phenomenal hit. Hsu Feng made seven films with King Hu, most notably A Touch of Zen (1971), which won the Grand Prix de la Commission Supérieure Technique at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. She also starred in The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), The Valiant Ones (1975), Raining in the Mountain (1979), and Legend of the Mountain (1979)
King Hu’s focus on the woman warrior subverted the tropes of an often masculinist genre, made possible the careers of female martial artists such as Michelle Yeoh, and opened the way for a gender-based reinterpretation of the wuxia pian.
In the last years of his life, despite his string of earlier successes, he had trouble finding producers for his films. He moved to Southern California in the 1980s, directed The Juveniser (1981), All the King’s Men (1981), the first episode of the Taiwanese-produced The Wheel of Life (1983), contributed to the Hong Kong film Swordsman (1990), and finally, after 40 years of exile, shot a film in the Beijing Film Studio, The Painted Skin (1992). He died at 65 in a hospital in Taipei while preparing a film about Chinese immigrant railroad workers. He is buried in California, thinking that he “belonged” neither to China nor to Hong Kong or Taiwan — being between several worlds, like the ghosts and monsters that populate the wuxia pian.