Poor King Hu. By rights his name should be spoken of throughout the world with the same reverence accorded to directors like Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, visionary masters of their art who transformed the cinematic language and influenced countless directors that followed them. Instead, half of his catalogue is unavailable on home video and much of the rest is only to be found with difficulty, in sub-par releases. On top of that, the one film most widely available and associated with his name apparently only has about 10 seconds worth of footage that he directed left in it!
One has to wonder how things came to this, and I can't honestly say that I know. After his second film, Come Drink With Me, was released in 1966 it immediately changed the way martial arts films were made, and propelled the young heroine Cheng Pei-Pei to super-stardom. If King Hu had stayed with Shaw Brothers he would doubtless have been made to churn out half a dozen similar films a year until the audience was fed up of seeing them. Apparently this wasn't what he fancied, so he left Shaw Brothers and set up his own production company in Taiwan. This allowed him to work at his own pace without compromising the particular attention to detail that characterises his work. Dragon Gate Inn (1967) might be seen as a development of the ideas explored in COME DRINK WITH ME, and is viewed by many (of those that have seen it) as the definitive wu xia pian. Personally I would give that accolade to Hu's next full-length feature, the 3 hour epic A Touch Of Zen - the first martial arts film to win an award at Cannes. After the stunning achievement of ATOZ it seems that King Hu was a bit lost for a follow-up, and he only produced four more features in the 70's, three in the 80's (none of which are easily available or fondly remembered) and 1 and a bit films in the 90's, at the end of which he died.
I've no idea why his directorial career sputtered out so soon after its bright start, but his legacy was assured from the moment COME DRINK WITH ME hit the screens, and still lives on today. King Hu's vision of martial arts cinema influenced every other director that has dabbled in the genre - from Chang Cheh and Lo Wei through Tsui Hark down to Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, none of the wu xia films they made would have been the same without the precedents created by the master.
Which brings us back to SWORDSMAN (1990), a project that appears to have been conceived by Tsui Hark as a way to pay respect to his idol and to reinvigorate the wu xia genre, which had more or less imploded on itself in the mid-eighties. The plan seems to have basically been to take the themes and conventions of the wu xia novel and update them with the visual and action style developed in the A CHINESE GHOST STORY series - and to get the man that reinvented the genre 25 years earlier involved in reinventing it again. Apparently King Hu did not completely buy into the plan, and wanted to make the film in the more subtle, artful style of his earlier works (the scenes of soldiers walking up a cliff in line, apparently the only footage he shot that made the final cut, definitely implies a more restrained style than anything in the rest of the film). Tsui Hark has admitted that he didn't really appreciate the difference between his role as producer and as director until late in his career, and it is easy to imagine the conflicts when these two visionary directors found that their visions were not in the same direction. King Hu left the production very early on, and the film was finished by a small army of directors and much of the cast & crew from A Chinese Ghost Story II.
The result was, as one might expect, a film much closer to ACGS2 than to anything King Hu had directed - the visual style of low cameras, wide-angle lenses and coloured filters does prove itself well suited to a more traditional wu xia storyline, and the wire-heavy action scenes added a new life to the fantastic martial arts prowess attributed to the heroes in wu xia novels such as the one on which this film was based.
The film did indeed reinvent and reinvigorate the martial arts genre, and was primarily responsible for the boom of similarly styled films that came out in the early 90's. For some reason it is overshadowed by some of the films it influenced, most obviously the 1992 sequel which replaced almost the entire cast with more bankable stars, with Jet Li taking over from Sam Hui and Brigitte Lin giving her most famous performance as Asia The Invincible.
Whilst the sequel undoubtedly raised the bar in terms of spectacle and style, I find that the 1990 film is in many ways more enjoyable. The pacing is far more manic than King Hu would have ever allowed, but the story doesn't fly by so fast that it becomes incoherent, which can't be said with all honesty about II. The cast don't have quite the same charisma, and the filming and editing of the action scenes is not quite as sophisticated, but it's still an accomplished work and a fine showcase for the unique charms of Hong Kong cinema.