MUBI's series Wuxia Dreams: A King Hu Double Bill is showing in the United Kingdom.
A nondescript inn, on the arid, soundless edge of the Chinese empire. An abandoned mansion, tucked away in the seemingly quotidian humdrum of village life. The treatment of these two residences in King Hu’s Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen demonstrates a key creative stroke in the filmmaker’s larger-than-life, heady cinema: turning locations from mere settings for character drama into rich, compelling characters themselves. As figures of the Ming dynasty’s high society spill into the inn and mansion and entangle local residents in broader national conflicts, Hu brings these spaces to life, making deep investments in their narrative significance and meaning. The inn and mansion become locations of political and physical combat, vessels of moral warfare, and sites of genre play, displaying some of the highlights of Hu’s filmmaking arsenal.
So much of Hu’s transformations of these spaces are embedded, grafted from the heart of cinema itself and the way this celluloid medium quivers between illusion and reality. In A Touch of Zen, the painter—and otherwise awkward villager—Gu (Shih Chun) becomes involved in a mission to protect a noblewoman, Yang (Hsu Feng), who is on the run from the corrupt Eunuch Wei and his troops after her father attempts to alert the Emperor about the eunuch’s misdeeds. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Gu makes use of mansion’s spooky reputation to scare off the eunuch’s troops. He dances in the shadows, setting off the booby-traps he had prepared in advance, triggering bells and fires, and puppeting figures to give off the impression that there are more combatants than there really are present.
In these deceptions and make-believe there is an inescapable sense of cinema and its own apparatus of bells, disembodied sounds, light and shadows, and figures moving in the night. Like a screenwriter etching “EXT. MANSION GROUNDS - NIGHT,” Gu plots to attack the troops under the cover of dark, and then arranges a convincing mise-en-scène as a director would—laying out a performance to arouse fear, summon mystery, and attack the senses of the troops pursuing Yang. This uncanny parallel provides a vivid revelation of Hu’s own elaborate orchestrations and multi-layered arrangements within the mansion, maneuvering seamlessly between cinema and the cinematic.
Hu also cleverly works other kinds of layers into these locations. For example, he uses these places to facilitate several genre transformations within the larger wuxia tradition that he is working under, which emphasizes sword-fighting and chivalrous missions. In Dragon Inn, varying characterizations of the remote inn allow the film to shape-shift between comedy, political drama, and martial arts action. Comic notes are hit as the innocuous inn employees stumble around trying to tend to the needs of their very un-anticipated and increasingly impatient crowd of political customers. Things escalate when the wandering martial arts whizz Xiao Shao-zi (Shih Chun, again) turns up at the inn and refuses to budge. Comedy turns into something more violent, as the altercation transforms the common eating space and the above-ground level corridors into a sword-fighting theater. In between these transfigurations, the Peking opera soundtrack allows Hu’s “cinema opera” to intervene, heightening the unfolding stagecraft. Even just witnessing the inn’s versatility as a location—its labyrinthic, claustrophobic interior paired with the expansiveness of its rural exterior—broadens our sense of what the space can be, and how it can morph to serve as different archetypical settings for each generic turn.
Similarly, in A Touch of Zen, the deserted mansion first invokes the architecture of horror: cobwebs, crumbling ruins, mysterious sounds. It then becomes the site of mystery, as Gu explores and investigates the residence at night. Later, when the fugitive noblewoman Yang appears as his neighbor in the mansion next-door, it becomes a place of romance and desire. As duels break out, like the fateful night attack, the estate transforms into a battlefield for phantasmagoric action. Yet, within these scaffoldings of martial arts action, the confrontations of the night give way to comedy, as Gu goes around admiring his booby-trapping handiwork—and then quickly shifts to something of a more dire and weighty drama, when Gu grieves the bloodshed he has caused in the obliteration of the eunuch’s troops. Perhaps we should think of these movements and moments less as genre shifts, but rather, Hu himself defining the very complexity, breadth and scale that wuxia can encompass. It is to think of genre—sometimes over-studied and over-contoured —as more limitless, than limiting. Sword-fighting and physics-bending martial arts are as much part of wuxia, as are its contemplations of morality, righteousness, and ethics.
Perhaps what is most stunning in both these films is how the inn and mansion become the unexpected chambers where the upheavals of empire intersect with the quiet theater of everyday life. By drawing different characters of political society into orbit with each other in an isolated location, Hu distills a sense of a nation in transition within one house, or inn, or mansion. In Dragon Inn, the sleepy tavern outpost awakens to political conflict as the head eunuch’s troops storm in, searching for three escaped children of General Yu. In A Touch of Zen, the unwieldy Gu and his mother become entangled in the imperial crossfire when they inspect the previously abandoned mansion next door, and discover their new neighbor Yang is on the run from the corrupt Eunuch Wei and his men. A similar pattern can also be found in Hu’s earlier work, Come Drink with Me (1966), where a drunken patron in a rural inn becomes embroiled in a bigger mission led by female heroine Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) to save a governor’s son taken hostage by bandits.
Within these collisions of political society’s high-profile actors—government operatives and fugitives, corrupt tyrants and exiled nobility—Hu instead draws our attention to the in-between figures and gives them otherworldly powers. They are gifted with remarkable foreknowledge, wit, and physical prowess. Even the “blind” man can see. They are the country’s rural dwellers, wayfarers, beloved wanderers in the peripheries. They become the empire’s accidental revolutionaries and heroes, attempting to make straight again the moral paths of society. What is the comfort of cinema, if not to give light to these characters and all the in-betweenness of life and living? Maybe it is what we desire so deeply and secretly in our hearts—as moving images and sounds flicker in front of us—to be woven into some grand narrative out there.
The architectural topography of King Hu’s cinema mediates for us these different ways of seeing, thinking, and being. The inn and mansion hold characters, and then become characters themselves. They bear witness to confrontations and embody contradictions. Their pillars and walls, bricks, and stones are the canvas upon which Hu paints portraits of socio-political life, as well as landscapes of revolution and justice. The organization of such locations also alludes to cinematic apparatus and imitates the theatrical stage. Spectacle gives way to performance, performance gives way to careful construction, careful construction leads to questions of the heart that send us seeking and making art in the first place. Perhaps these drifts between cinema and meta-cinema are what other filmmakers later picked up on—notably Tsai Ming-liang with Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)—propagating Hu’s timeless ideas, inventions, and imagination for years to come.