A Touch of Zen
Ming dynasty noblewoman Yang must escape from the evil eunuch Hsu. She seeks refuge at a decrepit town where she gets assistance from a naive scholar & a group of mysterious yet powerful monks.
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★★★★★ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd
casts nature as mysterious, tangled but carefully deliberate, and casts reformers combating totalitarianism as potential ghosts, the past returning to claim its place, the dead returning to vanquish their living betrayers. Hu famously continues to restore to film from Chinese literature the female knight, another piece of the past that now points forward. and the male hero finds his strength only after he sleeps with her and meets the Abbot; the power here is sexual, literally balls to bones, naturally emanating from within. the villain, corrupt and unseen, is a eunuch; his power is baseless, empty, founded on lies. sex vs death. the film folds themes in so gradually that you truly float down the river without ever seeming to get wet.
★★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
Someday, some enterprising company is going to restore and rerelease these King Hu movies and then they're going to get a whole lot of my money.
★★★★★ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
As dreamy as the rivers in which we seek nourishment and as haunting as the figures which impede the voids which we yearn to observe in the darkness. One of those movies that check every box on the list and even invent a few new categories just for the hell of it.
★★★★★ review by Joe on Letterboxd
It's probably a good five minutes before we see any human beings in A Touch of Zen - before that it's the title sequence, then some close-ups of insects in spider's webs, and various shots of water, trees, light, nature at rest. It's like a soft prayer before the story begins, and it's your first clue that this is no typical kung-fu action movie, containing almost none of the genre's usual concessions to audience attention spans. Even when the action does start up, it's pretty removed from the expected Shaw Bros. athleticism, instead punctuated by long stretches of patient waiting in between the jump-cut-aided fight choreography, just outside physical reality as we (think we) know it.
★★★★ review by Peter Labuza on Letterboxd
Using what critical facilities I have when it comes to 1960s-70s Asian cinema (ie. fairly limited), what is striking to me in the work of King Hu is how pointedly different it is from an action choreographer like Lau Kar-Leung. Notably, Hu's action is at one more simple and more fantastic. The sequences here (which the first only happens after an hour of set up) are built on notably longer takes (meaning at least a 4-5 ASL during action), often shot from a distance, and most notably are built around pausing. The too oft-repeated "kung fu like ballet" doesn't seem as appropriate here - the action is built around one or two careful blows followed by long pauses where the combatants look at each other, waiting for the next move. It's awkward in a good way - it feels authentic in the way one hears the breathes and essentially feels each of these guys thinking through the action. This striking fact is then oscillated through Hu's jump cuts (Kevin B Lee has a good piece on them here), where the action takes on a mystical quality that these people seem less trained than ordained by some higher purpose. Hu's action is ridiculously exciting because of these unexpected elements, so when the truly accomplished bamboo forest sequence was replayed in Part II, it was a welcome return.
The higher purpose, as with Hu, is Buddha. A Touch of Zen is a film that slowly works its way up a hierarchy - from the lowly artist peasant, to the outcast princess, to the regional commander, to finally the group of monks. The monks never attack, but instead force those who attack them to see the pettiness of physical action, which leads all the way into until the final sequence, which recalls the psychedelic journey of 2001 in its color distortion of landscape, where their leader is revealed as none other than the Buddha. It's a striking finale for the film in terms of its function in the narrative. For the first two hours, A Touch of Zen is often funny and thrilling, but the narrative if anything reminded me of something like A Fistful of Dollars (itself a remake of a Kurosawa film - who Hu cites as an influence), which is to say it struck me as something that is easily translatable to a Western audience.* But the shifts not in goal-oriented protagonists to something beyond this Earth and more spiritual is something completely absent in almost all Western cinema. Needless to say, it's both beguiling and thrilling.
*That Hu's final film was to be a Western about the founding of the railroad, shot in the United States, is one of the great losses of cinema.
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