King Hu's landmark wuxia, 1966's Come Drink with Me, is finally available on Region 1 DVD, and here's hoping his other masterpieces, like Dragon Gate Inn, will soon follow.
What I particularly like about Hu's action direction is his mixing emphasis on both long-takes and editing in his fight sequences. As has been noted elsewhere, particularly in David Bordwell's writings, Hu's elliptical editing of close inserts during fight sequences gives the illusion of lightning quick, almost incomprehensible skill that is faster than the eye can see. We usually see the beginning of a movement and Hu will then cut to the end of the movement or the end result, by-passing the actual contact of, say, a sword with a body, or a dart with an eye. The film form intuitively tells us what happened, but that the skill of the character was so great we only discerned what happened and could not really grasp the actual action.
And moments later...
But this was not the limit of Hu's skill. He would often alternate such rapidly edited fights with more graceful single-take sequences. Using none of the over the top sound effects of later, more brutish martial arts films, these long takes emphasized a more supple skill, with the sound of rustling clothing, padded feet, and soft contact between bodies. There is none of the concrete cause-and-effect of big smacks followed by gratuitous stunts, here Cheng Pei-pei seems to dance her way through the fight, softly but fatally skimming those who come in her way. But in case we think the effect too soft, too airy, Hu will emphasize the net effect by an insert cut to the results of Cheng's martial skills.
As this final cut-away to a skewered henchman makes clear, these are not diametrically opposed techniques (editing and long-take), and in fact they work in conjunction. The edit emphasizes punch-line like cleverness of the martial artist, but if deployed too often we would lose faith in a discernible skill that isn't cheated through movie magic. So Hu mixes these edited sequences with medium to long-shot single-takes that show us the more conventional martial-arts skill of the character. In conjunction, we mix skill-we-can-see with skill-we-assume, obtaining a balance of the down to earth and the mythic aspects of the character.
Cheng jumps/flies from one shot to the next:
Cheng, followed by henchmen, jumps/flies from one shot to the next. The following shot Hu starts in medias-res, Cheng already fighting as she lands. Long-take:
Cut-in for emphasis:
This variety marks Hu's playfulness, his masterful weaving between the magic and the reality of the cinema. Hu was not a mere formalist though, who operated through cutting and camera movement alone. Another topic for another time is magic of Hu's actors, the presence of someone like Cheng Pei-pei:
Come Drink with Me is available on R1 DVD from Dragon Dynasty.