A rustle of silk, a flash of steel, and a swordswoman flutters out of the sky and alights on a tree limb that bends gracefully beneath her feet. This is the image most people associate with wuxia, Hong Kong and China’s flying swordsman films. Wuxia novels have been popular in China for centuries, and they’ve been adapted for the big screen since 1928.
The One-Armed Swordsman
But after Hong Kong was swamped by protests, riots, strikes, and a wave of terrorist bombings that lasted from 1966 through the end of 1967, Chang Cheh channeled the counterculture outrage of the times to create The One-Armed Swordsman, starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Chinese cinema’s original cocky, charismatic badass. Previously, wuxia were about sophisticated swordsmen and women, dressed in silk, wielding mystical weapons but One-Armed Swordsman changed the genre forever, giving audiences young, male, working-class heroes, stripped to the waist and smeared with gore, chopping out their futures with their swords and dying with an axe in their guts.
While Chang crowned himself king of the brutal, brawling, macho wuxia, the more elegant and refined wuxia were still the province of King Hu, a Taiwanese filmmaker who is regarded as one of cinema’s original geniuses, right up there with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford. King Hu directed his first great wuxia, Come Drink with Me, in 1966 for Shaw Brothers, and it was the studio’s only big wuxia hit before One-Armed Swordsman. Then Hu moved to Taiwan where he parlayed his success with Come Drink With Me into another box office hit, Dragon Inn (68), before calling in all his markers to make A Touch of Zen (71), a three-hour wuxia that took three years to make at a time when most directors were shooting two or three films each year.
A Touch of Zen is as close to the lysergic spirituality of Alejandro Jodorowsky as wuxia would ever get. It’s told through the eyes of a meek, ineffectual male scholar, a common type in pre-1967 wuxia, while its main character is a typically ferocious female swordswoman. What wasn’t common was its emphasis on the idea of awakening consciousness. From the small moment when the scholar devises a clever trap, laughing at its effectiveness, and then stops as he witnesses the carnage it has wrought, to the finale when the characters realize that the world of wuxia is a dead end and they must transcend its constant conflicts to embrace a Buddhist idea of peace and harmony, this is a movie about spiritual growth.
The first Chinese film to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a box-office flop that heralded the beginning of the end of Hu’s fortunes. He would make eight more movies, some of them exceptional, but audiences abandoned him, and he gradually tried to do more and more with fewer resources. BAM is holding a King Hu retrospective called "All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu" from June 6 to 17, featuring A Touch of Zen (which anyone who cares about movies should see), his all-action fiesta The Valiant Ones (75), and two of his autumnal late-career movies (Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain, both from 1979). But the program doesn't include the film that was supposed to be his big breakthrough in the West, the one that would change everything: The Battle of Ono.
Set in the 1890s, Ono is about Chinese coolies, brought to America to build the railroad. Ripped off by the construction company, they’re abandoned in America with no money and no way home. Then, like a lot of no-hope Americans at the time, they decide to mine for gold. They find a claim but are thrown out by white people. They relocate, stake another claim, and this time when the white guys come to throw them out, they fight back in an elaborate action setpiece full of booby traps and explosives. Set during a time when Chinese were legally barred from entering the country and could not testify in court against white people, and when the lynching of Chinese was common in the West, it was a wildly ambitious project. Sarah Pillsbury (Desperately Seeking Susan) was attached as the producer, and she had the idea of hiring award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) to write the script.
“It was in ‘81 or ‘82,” Hwang tells Kaiju Shakedown. “My play, The Dance and the Railroad, had had a successful run Off-Broadway and this was the first movie offer I ever had. I worked with King Hu over the next five or six years, periodically, trying to develop the script.”
“King had a five- or six-page treatment called Igo Ono about the two towns where the story takes place,” Hwang says. “One, where the Chinese were driven out (Igo) and one where they made their stand (Ono). This was my first screenplay, and basically, what I decided to do was flesh out what he’d given me, creating characters who were as well-rounded as I [could] make them. King had very specific ideas for the action sequences, so I was trying to stitch together the story from one action sequence to another.”
Legend of the Mountain
King Hu’s greatest influence was Chinese opera, and the way he approached his characters and scripts had more in common with the stylized, heightened reality of theater and its archetypes than Western psychological realism. He was also a deeply visual director, who often designed his own costumes and sets, and strove to eschew simple narrative in favor of achieving moments of pure cinema.
“It’s not like he came into the project with a deep understanding of his characters,” Hwang says. “His characters seemed to me to be more types, and I got the impression that that’s who they were supposed to be. A Western sense of psychological development was not present in the treatment, and King didn’t seem all that concerned about it.”
Hwang came up with a first draft, took notes from the producers, and refined it further. “I didn’t feel like King was taking too active of a role in the development of the picture. He seemed pretty pleased with my first draft, but that might have been because he felt like he could change it during shooting so it was good enough.”
The Valiant Ones
After that, the producers sent Hwang to Hong Kong, where he stayed for two or three weeks working with King Hu on the next draft. Then he was sent to Taiwan and lived in a hotel room while King Hu was working on another movie. “While I was there I also met Cheng Pei-pei,” he says. “But I don’t think she was cast in the movie. She was just there to be supportive of King. She seemed to be part of this large circle who were there to do anything he needed. I didn’t know who any of these people were at the time, but they felt like his surrogate family.”
As for King himself, Hwang remembers: “I didn’t know anything about King Hu back then. He’d been described to me as a ‘Chinese Kurosawa,’ and I took that at face value. His English was pretty good, and my Chinese was non-existent. He seemed to be very soft-spoken, sweet, and very humble. Even when I was in Taiwan working with him while he was shooting movies, I did not get the sense of this grand dictator. I got the sense of somebody who was somewhat reserved, who seemed kind of scholarly, who was very knowledgeable about food, but that was it. It was strange. I didn’t know who he was and he didn’t act in a way to contradict that impression.”
“I found him to be a very easygoing collaborator. He had general notes, and specific scenes that he wanted in the movie, but he was less concerned about how to get from one moment that he wanted to another moment he wanted. In that respect, he was pretty laissez-faire about how I would end up laying the track. He had an overall sense of the story, though.”
Come Drink With Me
That’s not to give the impression that King Hu didn’t care about the film. His ideas on certain aspects of the film were extremely specific, as he recounted himself in the last interview he ever gave, talking about how his characters find gold in The Battle of Ono:
“As they set out on their way to San Francisco, they see the whites prospecting gold in the river. So they follow suit and they find some gold because one of them possesses expert knowledge of herbs, being a student of Chinese medicine. This guy sees scrub grass growing in the area. According to Chinese legend, if you dig in areas where the scrub grass grow, you can find gold or other minerals. Though a legend, this has been scientifically proven in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization of China. During the Tang dynasty, gold was discovered through this method.”
Hwang confirms that it was the more physical, less plot-driven, more complicated setpieces in the film that captured King Hu’s attention.
“The end of the movie is an elaborate preparation sequence where they set up traps with pits and spikes covered with soil,” he says. “And that was the thing that King was really into, the mechanics of how that would work, and he had very elaborate and specific ideas about it.”
Then the film took one of the turns that were to characterize its fate. “After Taiwan,” Hwang says, “at a certain point they were hitting a lot of dead ends, and it went into limbo. Then M. Butterfly happened and I was hot, but even before then they’d hired someone else to do a pass on the script and I never wound up back on The Battle of Ono. Looking back, what probably happened is that I did a few drafts with King Hu and they still felt the script wasn’t good enough. It happens.”
A Touch of Zen
Unable to secure financing in Hollywood, or from Hong Kong, Japan, or Taiwan, the film floated through various hands and various incarnations for over a decade, but in Hollywood hope never dies. As Hwang explains:
“If you go through the whole history of Ono there’s always a sense of ‘It’s just around the corner,’ and that’s Hollywood. A project either dies or there’s this sense of eternal optimism, this sense of ‘This is taking a while, but after we do this one next thing, it’s finally going to happen.’”
In late 1996, with John Woo and Terence Chang now working in Hollywood, it looked like The Battle of Ono had a new lease on life, with the two men reportedly backing the project as producers. Chow Yun-fat was said to be starring as Lum, the more heroic of the Chinese coolies (a late draft of the screenplay even features him firing two pistols at once in classic Chow Yun-fat mode). Before shooting began, Hu went back to Taiwan to attend a memorial for the other great Shaw Brothers director, Li Han-hsiang, who died in December 1996. While in Taiwan, he went for a check-up to make sure he was healthy enough to shoot Ono, and his doctor recommended that he have an angioplasty. He died a few hours after the procedure was completed, on January 14, 1997. King Hu was 64 years old. The Battle of Ono was over.
There have been rumors that Battle of Ono is not dead, but it seems unlikely it will ever get made without its director at the helm. But Hwang thinks there may still be something to it.
“I really believed in the project, and I believe in it to this day,” he says. “It’s a great American story, and it’s true, and people don’t know about it. It’s a classic underdog story and, yes, it is about white racism against Chinese people, but it also has great action scenes in a way people aren’t used to.”
The only thing Hwang regrets about the experience is that he didn’t know who King Hu was at the time. “If anything, I just feel I could have had a richer experience if I’d been a little more informed. And that’s my own fault. Now we know so much more about filmmakers from China, but in the Eighties we just didn’t know much about Chinese filmmakers and we didn’t care much. Looking back, King Hu was such an important and substantial figure. He was so much more groundbreaking than I knew at the time.”
It’s not just King Hu who’s being celebrated at BAM’s retrospective. Make sure not to miss the following two movies:
Tsui Hark’s radical deconstruction of Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman was panned when it was released, but it’s gone on to be generally acknowledged as a classic. You’ve never seen a movie this visually aggressive before, and its production design is unlike anything else in Chinese cinema. A few years ago we screened it in New York and the projectionist got so caught up in the the action that he forgot to make the reel change. That’s how good it is: this jaded union guy who’s seen thousands of movies forgot to do his job because this was unlike anything he’d ever seen before.
Li Han-hsiang was one of the great directors at Shaw Brothers before King Hu and Chang Cheh appeared, specializing in historical epics and period love stories. His films drip opulence from every frame, and they look like a glittering historical diorama come to life. Many of Shaw’s major hits before 1967 were his movies, and The Love Eterne (63) was one of the biggest. An adaptation of the classic folktale The Butterfly Lovers (later remade by Tsui Hark as The Lovers), it’s a huangmei diao, a filmed Chinese opera. Not to all tastes, but if you’ve ever wanted to see what audiences all over Asia were watching in the early Sixties before martial arts and wuxia movies made their comeback, this is the best chance you’ll get, with what’s considered one of the best Chinese films ever made.