It's not everyday you get to see the classics on the big screen, projected from 35mm film. Being a fan of the martial arts genre since young, I have been following new releases fairly faithfully, and getting my hands on as many of such movies that were made by the truckloads in the 70s and early 80s. The National Museum Cinematheque's World Cinema Series this year brings to us King Hu's masterpiece A Touch of Zen, and I would not miss this opportunity for the world to watch it together with a full house.
Stephen Teo, who had written a well-researched book entitled King "Hu's A Touch of Zen" on the making of the movie and an in-depth analysis of it, was present to share his thoughts on director King Hu and the movie A Touch of Zen, having seen the film on 35mm for the 5th time today. However, the print that was obtained from the Taiwanese Film Archive could have been better. While Part 1 (yes, it was in two parts, with a total run time of 187 minutes) was fairly unblemished save for the expected scratches, pops and cackles that appear occasionally due to the age of the print, Part 2 could have been in better condition, given that the crucial battle scene in an abandoned fort was shot in the dark given the night time raid, couple of missing frames which thankfully didn't jar the affected scene much, and a number of colour issues. The difference was felt immediately, as the famed bamboo battle scene was at the tail end of Part 1, and Part 2 recapped it in its entirety (note that Part 2 was theatrically released separately, hence the supposed need to jog the audience's memory as to where they were left off), so immediate comparisons on print quality was inevitable.
However, that still didn't mar my enjoyment of this classic, which won the Cannes Film Festival 1975 Technical Grand Prize Award. Stephen also shared that when the movie was first released (in two parts), they were box office flops, despite its high production values, and riding on the success of King Hu's previous movies Come Drink With Me and Dragon Inn, which also featured some of its stars here. Curiously, the movies so far being featured in the World Cinema Series like Youssef Chahine's Cairo Station and Shohei Imamura's The Profound Desire of the Gods were box office flops at their time of initial release, only being critically appreciated much later.
The movie is paced deliberately slow, but never boring you to bits. King Hu had tremendous say in the movie, and the camera spends much time lingering around, especially in the beginning of the film, to showcase the scale of the sets being designed based on inputs no less by Hu himself. In fact, the first line of dialogue doesn't even get uttered until about 10 minutes into the movie! It encompasses many universal themes, covering political intrigue, history, ghosts and spirits, battle strategies, and of course, Zen, in what I thought it rather forced its way into the narrative. Based on a short story by Pu Song Ling in his Liao Zhai anthology, the original story, which Stephen Teo added into his book as an appendix, is worth reading to see how it served as a basis on which King Hu had expanded from, and will no doubt raise some eyebrows with its homoerotic undertones, especially during its time. But of course, A Touch of Zen has nothing of those, and naturally junked the spiritual elements (save for the supposedly ghostly encounters early in the movie, and used as a key strategic piece later) for something more concrete.
The Chinese title is (俠女 / Xia Nü), but she doesn't appear until about 30 minutes into the movie. A Touch of Zen perhaps provided an early precursor to Louis Cha's Guo Jing and Huang Rong in one of my favourite stories Legend of the Condor Heroes, the former skilled in martial arts but rather dim witted, while the latter not as skilled in fighting, but possesses a brilliant mind. Here, the roles are reversed, and we have a poor scholar Ku Shen Chai (Shih Chun), skilled in the arts, but a rather contended, filial man who's constantly pressured by his aged mother to either find a wife, or go for the Imperial Examinations to become a court official (with fame and fortune come expected with the post), or better yet, do both. His idol is master strategist Zhuge Liang (we see a scene later where he mimics the image of Zhuge with his headgear and fan), and little does his know that his knowledge of strategies would be called upon when he volunteers his services to assist in the Xia Nü, Yang Hui-Ching's (Hsu Feng) quest for revenge, which again is a frequent theme in martial chilvary movies.
The Xia Nü Yang Hui-Ching is an alpha-female, and almost all the time, unsmiling (yet still remaining quite mesmerizing with her transfixed gaze that can shoot daggers). Fueled by the singular thought of revenge, everthing else gets cast aside, and her relationship with the scholar was one that I thought of as quite pathetic yet sad, not given much time for anything deeper to be developed between the two, and mechanically put, out of obligation. Her character's very much focused on the task at hand, with nary any inkling of typical conformance to female norms of the time, which makes her a fascinating character. Her sudden appearance in the neighbourhood, together with a host of other new characters appearing in town, from court officials, soldiers, and doctors, raises the scholar's curiosity that something is amiss, paving the way for the audience's concurrent discovery of everything that unfolds toward the latter half of Part 1.
Given the multitude of side characters here, I thought General Shi (Bai Ying) is probably the meatier of the lot, and provided plenty of comparisons between the male scholarly character, and himself, a man of war. And it is almost hardly an open secret that he does have some bits of affection toward Yang Hui-Ching, having sprinted her away from her adversaries, providing bodyguarding duties in her flight from plight, and later we realize, trying to seek a new life together away from "jiang hu", which of course, the theme says to always come with a price. He gets plenty of screen time as well, and fits our stereotypical view of how a male hero in a martial chilvary story should behave - skilled and with tremendous courage.
And what's a good martial chilvary movie if it doesn't have exciting fight sequences? For that, A Touch of Zen has its set pieces withstand the test of time. What I thought admirable was that it didn't go overboard with its fantastical elements, such as "Qing Gong" (light ability, which allows the practioner to make superhuman leaps and bounds), well, at least not until the very end where King Hu felt the need now or never to inject the Zen elements. But that's more storyline rather than action. Here, while we do see the martial artists jump up and down, the trampoline effect was indeed quite well done, technically as well as aesthetically, and doesn't go overboard like say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon does with its running on roofs, walls, on water and on bamboo leaves. Nice to look at, but sometimes I do admit, to be bordering on the ridiculous for those who don't buy into the genre for precisely these reasons.
Speaking of bamboo forest, perhaps this was the one big location and sequence that was paid homage to in movies like Crouching and House of Flying Daggers, now bumped up with the increased number of fighters, and more stylized camera shots of arrows. Opera has its influences in the movie, in almost every aspect like the unmistakable soundtrack, and especially acting and gestures - those wide-eyed, eyeball movements (again I'd like to add that Yang Hui-Ching'S eyeballs were, erm, sexy?) and extreme facial closeups. But like Stephen pointed out, the climatic battle movements, the two-person combo-movement going for the kill, was a direct reference and technique used in opera.
And I cannot rave any more on the fighting sequences. It's a combination of swordplay and fisticuffs (some will say you have reached an ultimate level if you can battle unarmed against armed opponents), and shot in such fluid motion, even though certain sequences were sped up. However, fight sequences these days rely a little too much of computer trickery, or wire work, or bad camera angles (too close to the action) or panning too fast that you don't get to see a thing. Here, the angles are just right, and the pacing too will put you at the edge of your seat as you see the characters duke it out. The swordplay too reminded me of samurai techniques somewhat, with delivery being slow and measured, making each stroke count for the maximum rather than slashing through thin air without much purpose. A Touch of Zen also reaffirmed that Shaolin Kungfu remains the undisputed #1, with the late Roy Chiao's monk Hui Yuan being no pushover when he comes to the table talking of peace.
But I thought that the film was not without its flaws. As Stephen mentioned, King Hu thought for long about how to end the movie, and I felt it did seem that the theme of Zen was somewhat forced through in the last act of the movie. Not that I'm complaining because we get treated to more swordsplay, but it brought the film to an entirely different plane altogether, and will likely leave its audience baffled or spend much time debating what it actually meant, given its open ended finale.
I'm tempted to get the DVD for this, but of the two legitimate versions out there, a Code 1 US version and a Code 2 UK one, both unfortunately are letterboxed (non-anamorphic), and based on feedback, the visual transfer is far from pristine. I guess while I wait out for some anniversary digitally remastered edition to be released (hopefully), my advice to readers out there, is to pick up Stephen's book either from the publisher Hong Kong University Press or from the library, and to give it a read, whether you have or have not watched the movie. While it contains specific scene discussions and detailed break downs, trust me, you'll still be marvelling at the actual work when you feast your eyes on the movie. I know I did!