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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 ***
King Hu's Hsia nu, which served as the inspiration for Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon, has acquired near-legendary status in the forty-plus
years since it was first made. The film tells the familiar tale of a
small-town man, still living at home with his mother in his thirties,
who meets an attractive woman living in the deserted fort next door.
The man strikes up a friendship with her, but is drawn into political
intrigue when he discovers she is actually the daughter of a murdered
ruler on the run from her father's killers. The man draws on his
interest in military strategy to help the woman defeat her pursuers.
This is no ordinary chop-socky flick, as can be seen by the way it polarises opinion between those who praise it as a lyrical work of art and those who complain about not being able to see what's going on during the night fighting scenes. I watched expecting an art-house flick, but was still surprised at how rigidly the director sticks to his artistic vision while making virtually no concession to the action genre. Even the fight scenes and there are quite a number after the first hour are out of the ordinary. They do at least boast a type of editing that was way ahead of its time the film doesn't look at all dated in the way that we are constantly teased with incomplete shots of the action.
The pace is measured to say the least; director King Hu seems more interested in savouring the composition of each shot for its own sake rather than developing a character or advancing the plot. The cinematography is superb, the composition seductive, but as the hour mark passes with little of any substance revealed, suspicions of indulgence are unavoidable. The plot isn't complicated, but is nevertheless difficult to follow at times (I should point out the UK DVD version I watched was approximately 30 minutes shorter than the running time given on IMDb, which might account for the gaps in the plot.)
Ku, the nominal hero, is an artist, an observer who, during the course of the film, must set aside his passivity, and the film calls upon the audience to do the same, which is why some might find it challenging to watch without their attention wandering. The film is really three types of story rolled into one ghost story, political intrigue and spiritual enlightenment and journeys from the mundane (Ku's daily routine of setting of to work and unlocking his small kiosk) to the sublime (the monk's transcendence into Nirvana). It's the sort of journey the viewer needs to repeat in order to appreciate all its subtleties and power but, in all honesty, if you're like me, it's probably a journey you'll only feel like taking once.
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.
I'm usually not a fan of 3+ hour long historical epics, and I just
can't help but to be disappointed by them. There are exceptions of
course, but King Hu's A Touch of Zen isn't one of them.
This is not the first wuxia movie, but proved itself to be the most influential of the genre for years. As a reminder, wuxia ("martial hero") is a broad genre of Chinese fiction about chivalrous heroes with unusual martial arts abilities. A Touch of Zen, based on Songling Pu's story, covers many different genres and also focuses on Buddhist elements. The movie was originally divided in two parts, upon release, with the second one released a year after the first one because they didn't shoot the movie in one go. That's why the second part begins with a recap of the first part by the repeating the same bamboo forest fight sequence that ends the first part.
The first thing one is likely to notice while watching this is that the print quality is absolutely horrendous. Not really the movie's fault, but it really hinders the viewing experience. The daylight scenes are foggy and washed out, which makes some otherwise impressive shots of nature off-putting to say the least. Moreover, night-time scenes are so dark that you can't make out a thing. It's not as bad as in, say, Assignment Terror, which is so dark that it's literally unwatchable, but is still bothersome. There's a 15-minute fight sequence completely ruined by the darkness. This movie just begs to be restored. I liked some visual motifs, like cobwebs, lens flares and foggy forests, but the usage of negative film to accompany divinity is pretty crappy.
The next issue I had with it is present in many historical epics; there is no real atmosphere and no author's touch present for the most of it. Things just happen on-screen and it's hard to care for any of it. I'm also confused by the characters. You have three main character - Ku, Yang and Wei. Yang is supposed to be the main character (according to the original title's translation, Heroine), but there's little to no screen time dedicated to her excluding the fight scenes, which is a shame because not only is the actress Feng Hsu beautiful, but there's no one to string this movie together. Ku is a pretty boring characters who goes from a nerdy scholar to a strategic expert after sleeping with Yang, and then goes absent for the majority of the plot. Wei is supposed to be the main bad guy, but he barely appears and the final boss is some random servant of his facing against invincible monks. There are many characters and scenes which I swear are added in just to prolong the runtime, some characters' relevance I still know nothing about, and all of them are horribly introduced. The set-up is full of boring scenes of people walking from point A to point B, to make it completely disengaging from the very start I guess.
Well, at least there are fight scenes which are pretty good, minus the confusing editing at turns and the fact that some of them are literally too dark to make out. The qinggong moves (levitation-like jumps) are particularly interesting because they used trampolines to do it. Also, according to some sources, young Jackie Chan was a stuntman in the movie. Elsewhere, it says that it's actually some guy named Jackie CHEN, so who knows.
So yeah, some fight scenes are interesting, but the plot didn't grab me at all and most of the film seems like a mess of overcooked plot lines and needless characters. And deus-ex-machina godlike Buddhist monks. And not nearly enough Feng Hsu. And with a crappy print. And it's boring. Maybe it's a culture shock.
*** 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.
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.
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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