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Apparently this is a big deal in the wuxia niche, proof there is more
to these films than simple chop socky and that they can paint sunsets
and sweep us to them like the best of films. I have no vested interest
in wuxia, though I have passed through a Shaw Bros phase; what brings
me here is Zen, beautiful, madcap Zen.
Although I follow a different branch of Buddhist practice, I am grateful for Zen tradition. We may find elsewhere similar notions of emptiness as the essence of form, but none that sing what it means to be fully, vitally empty with the passionate ardor of Zen.
The great Sufi love poets like Rumi also approached the mystery of what it means to unveil the world rather than explain it, but what awareness graced them was intuitive, desert inspired. Tao addressed the reflections of the cosmos in the evening dewdrops, what it means to look at a flower looking back at us, but that unity of far and close is enclosed in a perfect circle of yin-yang. Zen by contrast blossoms in the asymmetry of what spontaneously arises and disappears; and what the Zen Masters so eloquently talk about is what they have personally awakened to through their ardent practice of silence. The Enso circle that symbolizes this Awakening is often deliberately painted crude, as pointing to the imperfection of form it embraces.
So we have here a sweeping affair of political intrigue and unjust persecution in a China of empires. All this is in tacit understanding that these hierarchies will come to pass, like their forebears. The film after all opens in a deserted fort, in the mansion of a general ruined by civil war. Possibly this depiction of a corrupt aristocracy blinded the censors of the time to what it actually reflected of their own regime. Czech filmmakers were masters of this ubiquity, by situating their griefs with Soviet tyranny against a not-so-distant Nazi oppressor.
But the film is not content with this, which after all the Japanese had delivered decades ago in much more refined form. So what is the Zen touch here?
Although it's adequate as the former, here the film completely breaks apart. It's not enough that the Buddhist monks are made to be little more than godly vehicles who conveniently show up at the right moment to aid the oppressed with their superhuman abilities of kung fu (which is after all a valid extension of Zen practice), or whatever it is that these monks represent is reduced to the status of benevolent protectors.
What is actually surprising is that none of the characters who are met with this way of life are imparted with anything. What perfect opportunity squandered for example, to make the young portrait painter realize that 'knowledge' and 'wisdom' are not to be found in books. And how is it that the two fugitives leave the monastery with only the knowledge of deadly kung fu and none of the compassionate mind to control it?
It is not surprising then that this kind of film, that has reduced everything to appearance and platitude, would go on in the end to actually depict nirvana. The image intended to be transcendent transcends nothing, not merely because nirvana is a state of mind beyond words, but because ultimately there is nothing to transcend. Whatever mock transcendence in the image of the Buddha we find here means nothing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Touch of Zen
This movie requires a patience that most Kung Fu fans lack. Today I finished watching it for second time through. Few would argue that this is not King Hu's masterpiece and indeed it is just that a masterpiece. While I certainly understand how sometimes classics get dwarfed by the films they inspire (how insulting is it that hidden fortress is often labeled simply as the film that inspired C-3PO and R2D2) I think it is too bad here. Yes Touch of Zen is Ang Lee's favorite martial arts film and was a huge inspiration for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Yes It's true, and perhaps the film will find more fans as a result and I think that is great.
Touch of zen is cinema in it's finest form. It is three hours long, lacks the fancy wire work or CGI of modern Wuxia pan films but still stands the test of time. When you consider that this film was made in 1968/69 it makes it so much more impressive. The scenery is filled with beautiful imagines throughout the film of rural China. The camera balances light in most impressive ways. The main monk of the film is consistently beaming with natural sunlight which expresses in a beautifully cinematic way his connection to nature. Anyone who used a video camera in intense sunlight understands how hard those shots must have been.
If you the kind of Kung Fu fan that was really bothered by the fact that Crouching tiger didn't have a fight scene for 15 minutes don't bother. TOZ doesn't get to the action until 55 minutes in. However the tone of the film requires that we understand a few things about the artist whose eyes the story is told through.
TOZ is the second only to 36th chamber when it comes to making a Buddhist monks look badass. When the henchman HZU brings his violence onto the sacred ground to capture our renegade heroes he learns he can't defeat the Buddhist monks. There power is too great. He resorts to lying. Begging on his knees to be accepted by the monks, Indeed it is there only weakness, by the grace of Buddha he wants to help. Yet still the Buddhist monk doesn't resort to violence. He calls on Buddha and the powers of the universe and the henchmen destroys his sons and then him self. At least that is my take.
Touch of Zen is an excellent martial arts film for fans of films like MUSA, Hero or Crouching tiger. It must however be viewed as a film of it's period.
but this film ticks all my boxes. I have never seen anything quite like
I saw this well before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the comparison was painful to my eyes. CTHD was a beautiful film in its own way but it was far too westernised (e.g. it had an eye on the lowest common denominator, concentration on high production values rather than telling a story).
A Touch of Zen was mercifully made in a time before such depressing trends in films. It does not patronise the viewer with overly sentimental gushing that is needlessly inserted in order to generate a love interest. Or with OTT 'mood music' to prompt you how to feel because the script isn't up to the job.
One of the main fighters is a woman, but there is no attempt to portray her as some 'chick with attitude'.
The pacing of the film is also perfect, allowing the wonderful characterisation of the main player to develop fully.
At just under 3 hours, and with the unusual mix of pure action with an intelligent and sensible story, this film is not going to be to everyones tastes. But its well worth a look because if you like it, you are liable to love it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A TOUCH OF ZEN unfolds in Real Time (up to a point) and the beautifully casual pace of the opening scenes draw the viewer in in the way movies always SHOULD but seldom DO. The cinematography is wonderful, and much of the movie seems to have been shot using natural light (something I've always tried to do). There are some great selective point of view shots along the way, as well as a dimly-lit and eerily suggestive nighttime battle that's all the more realistic for its lack of light. (One can't help but wonder if these nighttime scenes looked better on the Big Screen, as film is a chemical process involving exposure to light and the DVD is an electronic medium. SEVEN, for instance, which literally had varying degrees of Light exposure within a single frame, looks completely different on a television screen than it did in a theater.) It's only fitting that Hsu Feng should have starred: without a doubt, she was one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the Big Screen. And the baby was a nice touch, too.
This is a special kind of movie, since it's being so many different
things all at once. It's a type of movie that feels more like an old
fashioned Japanese samurai movie, even though this movie is being a
What I especially like about it is that it starts off as something totally different but eventually ends as am adventurous movie, with lots of material arts fights in it. It's a long movie (about 3 hours) so it takes its time to slowly set things up and let stuff develop into something different. This ensures that the movie is always slowly but gradually developing and also never stands still, so there is never being an actual slow moment in this movie.
As the story develops, things also definitely get more interesting and fun to watch. The movie turns into a real adventure, in which the main characters are almost constantly traveling and having encounters with people that want to take their lives. This ensures that there is also plenty of action to enjoy in this movie, involving sword fights but also plenty of hand-to-hand combat, with every now and then Wire Fu effects involved.
It's also being a real innovative and original movie at times with some of its editing and camera techniques. In that regard this is also being a real '70's flick, a period in which a lot of experimenting with editing and cinematography was going on. Especially the cinematography is great at times and also does a good job at capturing the right mood and brining the environments very lively to the screen.
It's just the sort of movie not an awful lot is being wrong with. It does everything well and within its genre it's being a great watch!
Three hours will fly by when you catch King Hu's amazing, spectacular
"A Touch of Zen", possibly the greatest feat in the history of martial
The surface story about a poor student skilled in the ways of tactical warfare, who helps a master swordswoman and her bodyguard overcome the shame and dishonor of her father's murder at the hands of corrupt officials, gives way to a spiritual journey of enlightenment, making this an adventure film of the best kind, where the violence is only second place to the inner journey of the protagonist.
These three hours feature subtle romance, elegant action sequences that showcase the Chinese approach to psychological and strategic warfare, while yet serving as a poignant statement about the horror of war and the possibility of redemption.
The ending will strike you with a sense of awe that you have not felt since "2001", that's how good it is. For those of you who have not seen it, none will ever forget the sheer power and scope of the story that you have been told by the film's end.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Let me first say that this film is indeed a work of art - it is lyrical, spiritual and visually intriguing. However, as an action film I'm not entirely convinced. The fight scenes are nothing that special, though they are exceptionally well filmed, and our heroes leap around the screen in a way that doesn't seem inappropriate or false - you believe in the world of these people. But it is an extremely clever film and undoubtedly a highlight of Eastern cinema. The character development of Ku, is particularly impressive - initially refusing to grow up and take on responsibilities such as marriage, and eventually becoming a cunning freedom fighter and protector of a child. Unfortunately the other characters are too opaque, too much like ciphers, to really sympathise with. The development of genres is also very interesting, with the film starting out as a kind of ghost story and becoming a thriller with artistic and spiritual elements. If you are looking for lots of action and the kind of over-the-top antics we expect from Hong Kong, then don't look here. If you want to see stunning scenery, a languid but atmospheric pace, and beautiful images such as the sun rising over the silhouettes of Buddhist monks, then enjoy.
I rented this movie from Netflix. The DVD shows it in letterbox format
with bright white English subtitles in the lower black space. The
quality of the print that was used to make the disc is good for outdoor
action, but the action in two long night scenes is so dark as to be
Obviously a lot of people love this film, but I'd give it only 7 out of 10 because it's way too long, over 3 hours. It was shown in theaters in the early 70's as Part I and Part II on separate days, which would be okay except the climactic fight in the bamboo forest which ends Part I is repeated in entirety in Part II. And there are other sequences which could be trimmed back. Towards the beginning, for example, Scholar Ku makes a long, long annoying nocturnal investigation of the spooky old mansion where he lives with his mother, finding nothing. Because the print is so dark, we see nothing as well. Again, in Part II, after the heroes have tackled the evil forces of the Eastern Chamber (a never-explained reference to some part of the Imperial Palace, I suppose), Scholar Ku wanders around the battle site laughing humorlessly over his own cleverness in the ways he spooked the Imperial guard force that came to attack. A little of this stuff goes a long way.
Nonetheless, it's a good Netflix rental. I particularly enjoyed seeing Pai Ying in a heroic role as Gen. Shih, and hawk-faced Miao Tien as the evil Commandant's lieutenant. It was also interesting to see 1970's Taiwanese hero actor Tien Peng (often billed as "Roc" Tien) as a handsome official of intermediate strength and skill working for the evil Eastern Chamber people. And I loved Ku's mother.
Two other people deserve honorable mention. The Chinese title "Hsia Nü" means "gallant lady", according to the subtitles, but lead actress Hsü Feng is hard to warm up to, and usually seems off-putting rather than gallant. She never smiles in this film or shows any emotional content when she fights.
The other interesting person is Chiao Hu (often billed as Roy Chiao), who plays the Buddhist monk that injects the Touch of Zen. Chiao was always a likable actor, but he too never smiles or seems like anything but a chilly person here. In both cases, however, their demeanor is perfectly appropriate to the roles, so I didn't mind that.
And was that Sammo Hung in a bit part, supporting the evil general Hsü in the final struggles?
I didn't think I could be so bored by a martial arts film. How
disappointing; I was looking forward to finally seeing a film by the
legendary director King Hu, but this may turn me off any other films of his.
The story is a dull one about a fugitive girl, an expert in martial arts
taught by some powerful monks, who moves into a small town hoping to escape
her death sentence. Her father had spoken out against a local tyrant, and
his whole family was sentenced to death. An artist neighbor of the girl
falls for her, and gets mixed up in the dangers she faces. The martial arts
sequences are few and far between in this 3 hours + film, and the ones that
are there are mostly poor. The editing is so choppy that it's often
impossible to tell what's going on. Worse yet, a good number of these
sequences are at night, so you can't see anything. Only the two climactic
battles (the film is split in two) are any good at all, and they are kind of
similar, at that. The only commendable aspect of the film is its gorgeous
color cinematography. It is truly exceptional, but nothing else about A
Touch of Zen is.
Think me a rube or what have you, but nothing but pseudo-profundity and a lack of technical knowledge.
This is one of the most awfully and painfully boring movie I have ever
watched. Let me explain, the story is rather interesting with many
plots. The problem is the SCENES. OH MY GOD they are making every scene
feel like an eternity. A simple and unimportant scene can be 5 MINUTES
longer than needed. they are really dragging the audience' patience
here. I slept through many parts of the movie simply because it is so
I have to say that the background music is very annoying too. By today's standard of course. maybe it wasn't at the time the movie was made but it only make sense to review it by today's standard because people live and watch movie in the present.
If you enjoy those artistic movie where the scenery and slow pace are important too then I think this movie will be very enjoyable to you. Otherwise, avoid this movie like the plaque.
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