Sons of Good Earth, King Hu’s self-proclaimed “directorial debut”, is a tale of a provincial northern China city during the second Sino-Japanese war. While the story at times can be a bit slow and meandering, there is some excellent acting from the characters in the form of their physical expressions, body language and comedic timing. From the beginning moments of the film we see this physicality in action when He Hua (Betty Loh Ti) attempts to jump out of window. Her distress is palpable as she almost falls and the scene quickly transitions to comedy as Yu Rui (Peter Chen Ho) and Guan Sha Sheng (Kun Li) help keep her from falling and in the process douse a passing policeman in white paint. As they struggle to explain themselves their body language and facial expressions convey as much if not more than their dialogue.
This theme is repeated throughout the film as the physical actions of Yu Rui and Guan San Sheng create comedic moments while they attempt to make up a story to protect He Hua from being stuck in a life of slavery as a brothel worker. While I have yet to explore the other films of King Hu I am aware that several of them are in the wuxia style, which also depends heavily on physicality to convey drama and emotion. It seems easy to see how a non-wuxia film like this could have been the beginning of career of martial art films, because even with a relatively mundane tale of a war tearing about a village in rural China, King Hu is able to extract engaging physical performances from his actors.
While it could be argued that this might be overacting in certain respects I think it is still better to be over the top and to sell the emotions of the character as best you can. King Hu acts in this film as well in a supporting role and also supports it with strong a strong physical performance. During the climactic battle scene when he gets shot, the action is clear and easy to read, thanks to both the camera angle, shot distance and his acting.
As I continue to examine the films of King Hu, I am looking forward to seeing more of this physicality. It is of special interest to me as a fan of fight choreography and also as an animator. Physicality can convey so much more than just straight dialogue, and with such great body language and expression from the characters of Yu Rui and Guan San Sheng, it is easy to see how it can help strengthen both drama and comedy.