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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is where I found out that this Taiwanese (Mandarin language) film even existed, obviously I wasn't going to miss the chance to see it and hopefully agree with the recommendation. Basically well-meaning, often clumsy and unambitious scholar and painter Ku Shen Chai (Chun Shih) lives with his mother in her house nearly a supposedly haunted abandoned fortress, and one day deciding to explore this fortress he finds it occupied. Yang Hui-Ching (Feng Hsu) is a female fugitive hiding out from a stranger in town wanting to take her to back to the East Chamber guards for execution, and he wants to help her with her plan to bring out the real villain in a plot. A corrupt Eunuch Wei is trying to get rid of Yang and the rest of her family, and through the process of helping and sleeping with her Ku is no longer bumbling and becomes stronger in will, but it may not necessarily come from himself, it may supernatural forces. A big battle ensues between the painter turned warrior and the East Chamber guards, and Yang goes missing, but Ku tracks her down to a monastery, where powerful saint Abbot Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) is there, and she has given birth to Ku's child and become a nun. The evil Chief Commander Hsu Hsien-Chen (Han Ying-Chieh) tracks down the monastery and leads the army of Eunuch Wei into another battle, but the villain ends up defeated and killed, and in the end Yang was badly injured, and supposedly she dies as the sun rises and makes it look like she has a halo. Also starring Hsue Han as Dr. Lu Meng, Ying-Chieh Han as Hsu, Shui Wang as Mun Ta and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo as Commander Hsu's son, and apparently young Jackie Chan appears somewhere doing background extra and stunt work. As soon as I saw some of the chase and fight sequences I could tell that this was the inspiration for the eye-catching choreography and artistry of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, I will be honest and say that I got a little confused and lost in the story going on, and the three hour length is a little annoying, but for all the exciting bits it is a worthwhile martial arts action drama. Good!
*** 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?
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.
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.
I skimmed the favorable reviews and wonder if I just watched the same
film. For the first hour or so, I was hoping it would get better. Then
I was hoping it would just end. The pacing is very slow. The night time
scenes are poorly lit. The dialog--at least in English translation--is
at best stilted.
The film is poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly acted. It often seems like the actors are moving from pose to pose rather than acting. Among the funniest scenes are when characters are attempting to not be seen by moving about in the open in very conspicuous fashion.
Another point of humor: when characters are chasing other characters in fight scenes, the chasers are often on wires and hop down the bunny trail towards their opponents. I'm not used to bunnies doing the pursuing. The unfortunate thing is that this was, apparently, not intended to be humorous.
With all due respect to the HK Movie Association who puts this movie as
#9 on the 100 best Chinese films of the last 100 year, I believe this
movie is rather dated. As with "Lady Snowblood" (1973) which I put in
my two cents recently, they might be at the vanguard of their
respective genres at the time, but now, 30 odd years later, they
haven't age well at all. This happens, I think, especially with genre
movies where technology plays an important part. Dramas such as
"Rebecca" (Hitchcock) or "Now, Voyager" (Bette Davis), which are still
some of my all-time faves, fare much better because technology won't
really make them better; they already have great direction, story,
pacing, acting, etc.
I also want to dispute a reviewer from UK who mentioned that this movie is much more Chinese than "Crouching Tiger" which is too westernized. I can't disagree with him more. Having actually read the wuxia novels that many of these movies are based on, I have to say "Crouching Tiger" beautifully captures the lyricism and essence of the wuxia world without any Western influence. But I digress.
The pacing of this movie is really too slow. Fully an hour was devoted to people, chiefly of the male protagonist, walking around and around in that same little village. An HOUR of nothing much happening to propel the story! As a matter of fact, a large portion of the 3-hour movie time is eaten up by showing people walking from point A to point B which is totally pointless. The bamboo forest scene will remind many of a similar scene in "House of Flying Daggers" and is probably its inspiration. Alas, it was done much better in the newer movie, due to better choreography, wire works, and kinetic energy that "Zen" sadly lacks. Same argument for all the other set pieces. The ending is anticlimactic since there is no tension when one party is the living Buddha (or something like that). The use of negative film to denote some sort of divine intervention is jarring and a little laughable.
During the opening credits, it indicates that this movie is based on a book which is written in the Manchu dynasty, probably in the late 18th or early 19th century. I don't know of a direct translation of the book but it is available in English with the title, "Chinese Ghost and Love Stories" by Pu Songling (I coin him the Chinese Edgar Allen Poe). It is one of the premiere books in Chinese literature. Not all his stories are about ghosts but all have a fantastical element and most have a moral to it. But the book are all short stories and none is long enough to be a novella; so stretching a short story to 3 hours entails lots and lots of padding; hence, all the walking. I haven't actually looked for the story that the movie is based on but I can say for sure that in old Chinese society and in Pu's stories as well, no woman who is from a respected family (as the female character is) would bed down with a practical stranger, EVER, unless she is a demon or a ghost, which does happen quite frequently in his stories and are almost always not a good thing. It probably had happened in real life when there was a strong attraction, but she was basically feeling pity for his mother and so decided to give her virginity to him. Yeah, I don't think so! The DVD quality from Tai Seng is abysmal which probably also contributes to my discontent. The transfer is horrid; pixilated (like in a VCD) in some scenes, looks like it's forever raining in dark scenes, some black spots permanently imprinted on the screen throughout the entire movie. The big fight scene that happens at the deserted house at night is so dark that is practically unwatchable. Moreover, the audio is muddy and barely audible even with volume turns to the loudest.
The Chinese title is translated as Heroine but the official English title is a better description of the movie given the spiritual element in the movie.
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