Friday, April 21, 2017

Classic Movie Review: A Touch of Zen (1971)

A Touch of Zen (1971)
Directed by: King Hu.   
Written by: King Hu based on the story by Songling Pu. 
Starring: Hsu Feng (Yang Hui-zhen), Shih Chun (Gu Sheng-tsai), Bai Ying (General Shi Wen-qiao), Xue Han (General Lu Ding-an), Roy Chiao (Abbot Hui-yuan), Tien Peng (Ouyang Nian), Cao Jian (Xu Zheng-qing, local magistrate), Miao Tien (Nie Qiu, one of Mun Ta's advisors), Zhang Bing-yu (Sheng-tsai's mother), Wang Rui (Man Da), Han Ying-jie (Chief Commander Xu Xian-chun), Wan Zhong-shan (Lu Qiang), Jia Lushi (Yang Lian), Cheung Wen-men (Tao Lung).
King Hu’s A Touch of Zen is an important film – and one that it necessary for Western audiences to see, if for no other reason to see the lineage of films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. I know that when I first saw Crouching Tiger upon its release in 2000, it seemed like something wholly unique and original – when really, it was Lee’s riff on a type of film – wuxia – that had been popular in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong for a long time – but had never really taken root in North America. Following the release of Crouching Tiger, director King Hu started to receive more attention for his wuxia films of the 1960s and 1970s – of which A Touch of Zen is considered his masterpiece – and yet, oddly, it took years for Criterion (or anyone) to do an official release of Hu’s three hour epic for Western audiences. The film is hardly perfect – and yet is a wonderful, and rather daring, example of the form.
The two most daring decision that Hu made in A Touch of Zen was to delay the first sword fight for until nearly an hour into the narrative, and to focus much of that runtime on the generally passive Gu Sheng-tsai – a intellectual, who never does pick up a sword for the film’s three hour runtime. When we first meet him, he is making his (meager) living as a portrait painter in a small town, while being henpecked by his mother, who wants him to take the civil service exam – or else she worries he will never give her grandkids. Gu’s first customer is Ouyang Nian – a swordsman from elsewhere, who wants to pick Gu’s brain on the locals – especially the new people in town. One of those new people turns out to be Yang – a beautiful young woman, who moves in (apparently with her sickly relative) into a supposedly haunted property near Gu’s mother. Of course she – and the other newcomers – aren’t who they appear to be – and neither is Ouyang Nian – who wants to kill them. The rest of the narrative consists of a series of sword fights between the various warring factions – and eventually more, even deadlier assassins, and a bunch of kick-ass monks.
I eschewed giving too much of a plot summary above, simply because, this is one of those narratives that you can either describe in a sentence, or else take all afternoon doing so. The plot is simple, but the storytelling is not – as it ties itself into knots (honestly, too many) to try and justify its three hour runtime, introduces and abandons characters easily (after spending the better part of an hour with Gu, he’s barely in the back half of the film at all). The highlights are the gravity defying action sequences – that stretch on for many minutes at a time, and unlike Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou, Hu didn’t have the aid of CGI, so he had to find clever ways to make his characters look like they’re flying through the air – and sometimes, this looks better than at other times (you can tell, for instance, that sometimes characters are doing little more than jumping over the camera). Still, unlike action movie directors of today, Hu is able to film action sequences and make them exciting, while still respecting spatial relationships between the characters, and not resorting to shaky camerawork and rapid fire editing. The ending of the film is surprisingly spiritual, showing that Hu didn’t just include the kick ass monks for the fun of it – he has an actual purpose.
A Touch of Zen is a film whose historical importance is perhaps more than its actual greatness. I’m not sure this is the place to start with wuxia (a genre, that I have to admit, I only have a passing familarlity with) – because I’m not sure you’d quite get how Hu is playing with audience expectations if this was your first film – or how he subverts them. As a film unto itself, A Touch of Zen is excellent – fun and exciting, and surprising in many ways. In terms of its historical importance, its value at finally having it available is even greater.

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