Lee Khan, a high official under Mongolian Emperor Yuan of the Yuan dynasty (year 1366) procures the battle map of the Chinese rebel Chu Yuan-Chang's army. Rebel spies, aided by treachery within Khan's ranks, strive to corner him in an inn.
An artist, Ku, lives with his mother near an abandoned fort, reputed to be haunted. One night, investigating strange noises, he meets the beautiful Yang who is living there. She is being pursued by agents of an Imperial noble who have murdered her family. Ku finds himself caught up in her struggle to survive, and many fierce battles take place before all is resolved. Action adventure with a lyrical feel, this is a kung fu film with a strong spiritual element.Written by
Richard Hills <R.Hills@wlv.ac.uk>
To think that I used to accuse King Hu of doing injustice to the wuxia genre with boring storytelling and slow action, I must have been on crack at the time--as his best works completely transcend elements of conventional film-making. In A TOUCH OF ZEN, It's not the story or the action that stands out; although they are part of the system, they are secondary to the theme of spiritual enlightenment, which is what counts in Buddhist philosophy. When the abbot confronts the East Chamber agent, the art of combat is strictly utilized by the abbot to guide the agent to "put down his sword, and attain peace with Buddha." There is a haunting sight when the bookworm scholar is amused by his tactic which fooled the agents. He thinks he has reached the peak of perfection, but then he sees dead bodies lying around who have suffered from his tactic, and the only thing on his mind is a woman whom he lusts. As book-smart as he is, he still suffers from worldly affair like everyone else. Only at the end when he accepts Buddha is he able to live in peace.
Aside from the philosophical points, ZEN also scores strongly in establishing mood, suspense, and fascinating visuals. The Jiang Hu in this film feels incredibly authentic, and the rich mise-en-scene is refreshing compared to the limited Shaw Bros studio offerings. I loved the photography throughout; it beautifully captures the spiritual wonder of ancient Orient. In framing still shots, King Hu chiefly employs medium and medium close-ups, mounting his camera at an upward angle so we can always see beyond the characters, perhaps to suggest existence of higher wisdom.
One observation I would like to propose is that although ZEN is probably a milestone in Chinese cinema, it would be a minor masterpiece compared to the best works from 60s Japan. The lush photography and haunting images from KWAIDAN come to mind as a comparison. No doubt, King Hu also learned a few tricks from the likes of Kurosawa, such as pointing his camera at the sun which occurs frequently in ZEN.
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