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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 ***
I will like to justify some comments on this classic film and also WARN
those who are looking forward to watch it. If anyone expect this movie
to be full of action, I suggest they stick to Hollywoood films. If they
expect a lot of swordplay, go for the Shaw Brothers releases, there are
plenty of them.
Touch of Zen(Xia Nu) is a great piece of 3 hrs Chinese art like the Belle noiseuse,La, a 4 hrs French art, but not as long or as slow. I watched it 30 over years ago as a kid and found it boring(a box office flop then) but when I watched it on DVD recently, I really appreciate and enjoyed it. It's not like the usual Chinese sword-fighting movies, there are very few actions here, in fact, for the first half(Part 1) there is only 1 short action scene(I don't consider this a spoiler)at the climatic end, which I consider a classic. Here is where the recent "bamboo action scenes" from other movies got the idea. Bear in mind, there is no digital effect at that time. I think Cannes gave it a technical award due to that scene. Those who think that Crouching Tiger or Flying Daggers' bamboo scenes are better, they should take a second viewing and try to figure out how those scenes are shot.
Those who enjoyed King Hu's or sword-fighting films should also watch Come Drink With Me, Dragon Inn Gate(the original), The Valiant Ones and The Fate of Lee Khan.(Too bad the latter 3 are not available in DVD yet) and those who appreciate Chinese art must watch his Raining in The Mountain and Legend in the Mountain. King Hu only directed around 15 movies in 30 years(probably the least for an Asian director of those times) and I recommend the above mentioned 7 to foreigners as I consider them as classics. I will give them a 8 or 9 for IMDb ratings.
*** 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.
Once there was a time when I thought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was
the very best martial arts movie man could make. Both visually and
story-tellingwise it was a joy to watch, and the fight scenes were the
best ever with their unrealistic features. Once I saw King Hu's martial
arts masterpiece A Touch of Zen I was rather surprised since it
exceeded in almost every level. First released in 1971, this great film
hasn't lost any of its power or splendor which is a fine merit on its
In the beginning of the movie we follow the everyday life of a poor artist Ku, an unmarried man in his thirties, who is living in a rather small town with his mother. This first part of the film (for it can roughly be divided into three parts) plays much like a family drama with some small comic moments. Ku's life gets a little more interesting when he notices strange people walking around town, a mysterious man visiting his studio and befriending him, and some strange noises coming from a house that is rumoured to be haunted. All this and the love (or is it just lust?) he feels for a certain woman change his life completely.
The next two parts offer a very different experience each providing the story with politics, war tactics and a growing spiritual element of mystery through beautiful photography, great direction and awesome fight scenes. What really stands out in the martial arts part of the film is how real it feels. I know it isn't real; some leaps and moves the characters make just can't be done in real life, but the clanging of the steel, swooshing of people's clothes when they perform their moves and the sound of footsteps are so impressive that I found myself holding my breath at some scenes. This is also helped by the near perfect choreography. It's nothing like the tricky and lightning-fast movements in CTHD and I like this much better. The fighters are really observing each other's moves to know when to strike.
I really can't find any serious faults in this movie. Being over three hours long there wasn't a single wasted minute. Any yawning I did was due to the late hour when I was watching this. It is true that the film moves slowly forward but I think it's necessary for the atmosphere to develop. The director really knew what he was doing since all the important scenes have that special quality to them that can only be acquired when superb direction, believable acting and a great sense of situation come together. The use of light is especially worth mentioning since it is so well done. The fight in the forest where light shines through the leaves creating a dreamlike scenery in the background has got to be one of the most captivating things I've seen on film.
A Touch of Zen is one of my favourite movies. It is very well executed in every way imaginable, and definitely among the best martial arts movies. If you like this type of movies where great action is mixed with spiritual elements and a search for peace, you must see this beautiful movie. It won't leave you cold.
"A touch of Zen", the English title is perhaps the only thing about
this film that isn't beautifully and subtly conceived... This is a film
about about ambition, perception, personality and what evil might be...
it isn't really a standard action movie.
The storyline is highly compelling, but not rushed; the pacing is wonderfully handled, moving from the slow, almost lazy quotidian existence of the unambitious, scholarly protagonist to the fast paced, highly dynamic camera work of the action scenes. The shape of the film, perhaps the most amazing aspect of this 'masterpiece', starts with the small (even petty) and slowly ramps through the heroic to the iconic and finally to the divine. Each stage is a brief, often profound meditation on the nature of life and humanity of that state.
The cinematography is always lavish and startling, and, as with many of the Japanese films of the time, not afraid of a screen beautifully composed mostly of shades of darkness.
The martial arts displayed are never exhibitionary nor obviously proficient. This understated quality to the skills is sometimes disappointing (if that is why you are watching the film), but ends up being the best way to capture the the unknowable skills of some of the characters. As a matter of interest, a young Sammo Hung makes an appearance as a bodyguard and there are some other kung fu faces amongst the stunt men.
All in all, this film is profound and compelling. Well worth a watch
This is truly a great film. It is unfortunate that the only DVD
versions that are available are in pretty poor shape (though, I must
add, not in as bad shape as the more recently filmed Ashes of Time by
Wong Kar Wai).
How the translation of Hsia Nu got to become A Touch of Zen, I'll never know - and it's too late to change it now as A Touch of Zen is how the film is known outside of China.
This film really has it all. Some wonderful cinematography; a great story; marvelous special effects (using good camera work - without the use of computers); and, some good emotional content.
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.
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