Hong Kong has one of the most eclectic and progressive film industries in the world. This little island has proven time and time again that popular fare can coexist with artful intentions. King Hu, director of the wuxia pian (or martial arts sword-fighting movie) classic Come Drink With Me, is a legend, within Asia and in western critic circles, for his mastery and depiction of sword-fighting action. How does King Hu direct the action scenes involving Golden Swallow? How does he use the director’s tools, namely camera movement, choreography, editing and framing to present the action?
Stephen Teo says of camera movement in Hu’s oeuvre, “[…] In Hu’s films, movement is an end in itself.” It is true that Hu seems to consider separately each of the director’s tools, using camera movement for a totally different purpose than editing or the wide-screen space. His camera movements are, first, descriptive, putting emphasis in the present situation for the spectator. When Golden Swallow first enters the inn, the camera tracks to follow her, exposing at the same time the layout of the location, where one of the pivotal scenes will take place, but also showing her willing entry into a hostile environment. She examines her surroundings carefully before sitting down as the spectator’s eye, in imitation of the hero’s, wanders from patron to patron, trying to discern danger. She enters the inn the way cowboys enter saloons in westerns. Stephen Teo writes of Hu’s use of the inn:
“In Hu’s most typical films, the inn is a recurrent setting signifying transience, with tableaux and designs flexible enough to provide a stage for life-and-death struggles and thus to compel movement and action which, because of the very restrictiveness of the spaces, become even more emphatic.”
It’s as if the small space compels crises and confrontations. In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the inn is replaced by The House of Blue Leaves, a modern bar-club, retro-decorated to pay homage to those scenes of wuxia movies. If in classical Western cinema, conflict is primarily set up by shot-counter-shot editing, here Hu sets up his conflict with camera movement. When the two bandits who were following Golden Swallow enter the inn, a pan follows them to Smiling Tiger’s table. The movement ends temporarily on Golden Swallow in the foreground, looking over her shoulder, and the three bandits in the background, conspiring against her. The camera then seems to follow Golden Swallow’s gaze, moving closer to Smiling Tiger’s table, letting us in on their conversation.
Hu sets up opposition later in the same scene when, under Smiling Tiger’s order, the bandits in the inn surround Golden Swallow, still sitting at her table, indifferently drinking her wine. Like vultures swooping in for the kill, the bandits form a constricting circle around her as the camera moves in a similar fashion but in opposition to their movement (the camera moves counterclockwise while the bandits move clockwise).
In moments of a break within the fighting, of calm before the storm, where Golden Swallow is assessing her enemy’s strengths and vice-versa, the camera tracks within the space to emphasize the mental cunning and strategic thought taking place. In the showdown at the temple, the confrontation starts with Golden Swallow surrounded by Jade-Faced Tiger’s band. As she moves laterally, the camera tracks with her, giving the spectator the opportunity to assess her situation as Golden Swallow is doing at that instant, more outlaws coming into view as the camera moves. Finally, the camera movement serves an important purpose: to emphasize and draw attention to the martial arts choreography of the movie.
Hu’s martial arts choreography is surprising, to say the least, and miles away from realism. To Stephen Teo, “[Hu’s] a stylist, more concerned with the plasticity of images than with ideas”. David Bordwell states that “[…] King Hu was uninterested in combat techniques,” preferring to anchor his films in the realm of fairy tales by drawing inspiration from his roots. As a native of northern China, Hu capitalized, in his work, “on the use of Beijing-accented Mandarin and allusions to the performing tradition of Beijing opera and other styles from northern China, such as the bangzi quiang (clapper opera) and the huangmei diao (melodious tunes sung in recitative mode)”. His love of Northern culture and Beijing opera will inspire the atypical fight scenes in his wuxia movies. Jade-Faced Tiger, the movie’s villain, has his face covered in makeup, reminiscent of Chinese actors Pak Suet-sin and Yam Kim-fai in their many early opera films. Hu further confirms his desire at more opera-based martial arts by casting Cheng Pei-Pei, a ballet dancer, as the lead, Golden Swallow. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie that owes a lot to Come Drink With Me, Ang Lee will choose Zhang Ziyi as one of the leads, a young actress who studied dance at China Central Drama College, and she will almost channel Golden Swallow, going as far as paying homage to the inn scene previously discussed.
Hu credited his films’ excellent fights to his choreographer, Han Yingjie but he still had a hand in the overall planning of the scenes. “Hu’s choreographer, Han Yingjie, had trained in Peking Opera, writes David Bordwell, and Hu frankly acknowledged that he designed combat scenes as ballets, not as plausible fight scenes”. In the inn scene, when, surrounded by the bandits and then attacked, Golden Swallow fights back, she sidles gracefully between one of her attackers to take a defensive position. When attacked by two of them, she effortlessly juggles between the both of them, delivering blows alternatively to each. Soon, she’s throwing head-high kicks and doing cartwheels on the inn’s tables. The choreography is more apparent in the temple scene where, in a continuous take, Golden swallow goes through several bandits as the tracking camera follows her around. Hu used his influences in his art, creating a fairy tale like cinematic experience, close to Myth, drenched in Chinese history.
As uniquely as Hu used the camera movement and choreography in his expression of the modern wuxia pian, he routinely employed editing techniques to put emphasis on his characters supernatural prowess. In the inn scene, when the bandits test Golden Swallow’s strength, her action is cut into quickly to make it more kinetic. “[…] Hu took pride in rapid cutting, affirms David Bordwell, claiming that he was the first Hong Kong director to use eight-frame shots.” Hu also uses a specific editing pattern to convey Golden Swallow’s signature move, a technique that, like a leitmotif, she uses several times in the film. It first appears in the inn scene, when, attacked from all sides, she lashes out at all the blades at once, framed in a medium close-up, with her and the bandits’ blades only in the frame. The next shot shows her attackers falling to the ground, struck down by Golden Swallow’s devastating attack. She will use this technique twice in the temple scene, always shot and edited in the same manner.
It is in this peculiar and original depiction of action that King Hu developed his style. To David Bordwell, “King Hu was perfectly capable of shooting and cutting a straightforward fight, but he often sought to convey the otherworldly speed and agility of his fighters through stylistic choices that we can only call experimental”. Outside the temple, when Golden Swallow confronts Jade-Faced Tiger, his almost imperceptible movements get the better of her. There is a shot of Jade-Faced Tiger, running towards the camera, blade in hand, then a short shot of Golden Swallow dodging the blow, then a short shot of Jade-Faced Tiger, cutting her bandana. Almost imperceptible at normal viewing speed, this strategy of King Hu becomes apparent when viewing at a slower speed or even frame by frame.
Bordwell says of Hu’s editing style, “He likes to shave frames off the launch/leap/land cycle, or eliminate one or two phases altogether, so that the heroes’ maneuvers become as abrupt and disconcerting to the viewer as they are to their adversaries”. We are put in the same situation as the bandits, incapable of viewing the organization of imperceptible hits that lead up to their undoing. In the temple scene, when needles are thrown at her, Golden Swallow stops them with her basket. By editing, the needles seem to appear one after the other, stuck on the basket, conveying the inhuman speed of the bandit’s movement. It is analogous to the carriage scene in Murnau’s Nosferatu where the unnatural carriage leading the real estate agent Hutter to the count’s castle moves at phenomenal speed. Murnau conveys the strangeness of Hutter’s situation by fast-forwarding the film and even using negative film at one point. Hu’s experiments, in the same vein, effectively carry the superhuman attributes of his characters.
It’s within this perspective that Hu uses jump cuts. The movements of his heroes are interrupted, jumping to their consequence. “Instead of floating endlessly like the Hong Kong swordsmen of the 1990s, Hu’s fighters are usually up and down in an instant”, writes Bordwell. It is left to the spectator to infer what has transpired, to fill in the blanks. In the temple scene, when Golden Swallow is first attacked, she blocks her two adversaries and in the next shot, they’re down, without the spectator having witnessed the progression of the action. During their battle outside the temple, there is a close-up shot of Jade-Faced Tiger kicking Golden Swallow followed by a short shot of her falling down and it cuts to her, only instants later, on the floor, crawling away from her adversary; several frames having been omitted. Unlike Godard, who first used jump cuts to create a brechtian effect, Hu’s use is narrative, inferring his characters with an aura of power.
Like his editing style, Hu uses the wide-screen like a master, and frames his characters in a dynamic environment. When Golden Swallow is introduced, as if conjured up by the bandits who tell tall tales of her to Jade-Faced Tiger, she enters a frame of the lively Chinese village and looks around while the effervescent village life goes on in her background, a scene reminiscent of the village depicted in Sun Yu’s Xiao Wanyi (Small Toys). As she walks towards the village’s bridge, the shot changes; Golden Swallow walks from right to left in the background while a bandit identifies her for Smiling Tiger in the foreground.
Hu’s use of the wide-screen and framing is contingent on the space of the scene. The inn, as discussed, is a predilection of the genre but Hu re-appropriates it. As David Bordwell states, “The clutter of his inns coaxed King Hu into designing clever wide-screen images of combat”. In the inn scene, when Golden Swallow dismisses her attackers with her signature move, behind her, on the first floor, the needle-thrower positions himself to strike her. When Drunken Cat enters the frame, we see the needle thrower behind both of them. When she hits him with a dagger and his blade falls to a table, the next shot shows that blade still swinging while the needle-thrower backs up into the shadows on the first floor and Golden Swallow advances towards the camera, as if asking for more.
“Even the inn films do not confine themselves wholly to interiors, writes Bordwell, by the end conflicts spill outside.” The temple showdown soon spills into the courtyard and the dynamics of the wide-screen change somewhat. In freer space, the wide-screen is less crowded although sometimes it reverts back to cramped composition. For example, there is a shot in the courtyard of Golden Swallow and Jade-Faced Tiger facing each other in the background, framed inside the cinematic frame by a construction of the courtyard, separated by that construction’s lines. Suddenly, Drunken Cat comes into the frame and hides behind its wall, observing the fight. It is great composition and use of the space that the wide-screen offers. Hu shows that he controls the filmmaker’s tools and uses them to convey his conception of dynamic action.
For Stephen Tao, “Hu was the director who took the sword-fighting movie into the realm of art-house respectability in the West. His movies were stylish, usually set in his favourite period, the Ming dynasty, and the films featured swordswomen and the eunuch supervillains who presided over the dongchang, the repressive organization of Ming governments”. Hu’s attraction to Western critics is evident; his penchant for stylish use of camera and editing and the plasticity and artificiality of his mise-en-scene not only make him unique but also his choice of the wuxia pian genre as a means of expression. Hu declared once that “Western art is torn between imitation and expressivity, but Chinese art always offers both, using real materials to present something unreal”. This is the most precise description of Hong Kong cinema in particular. There are those that would call it post-modern, the mix of the old and the new, of homage and expressivity, but, to Hu, that’s Chinese art. And by applying his interests and influences into his filmmaking, whether from Japanese samurai movies or Beijing opera, King Hu embodies that facet of Chinese culture.
BORDWELL, D.: Planet Hong Kong: Popular cinema and the art of entertainment, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000.
TEO, S.: Hong Kong Cinema: the Extra Dimensions, BFI Publishing, London, UK, 1997.