pick a fight with a Buddhist abbot on the brink of enlightenment, especially if
he is played by Roy Chiao. That would necessarily mean you are the evil one,
since his virtue is plain as the rays of righteousness emanating from him. Of
course, Abbot Hui Yuan has largely forsaken worldly matters, but the agents of
the evil Eunuch Wei are perversely determined to involve the master of masters.
Wuxia spectacle reaches the highest levels of art and spirituality in King Hu’s
masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (trailer here), which
re-releases in its complete, 4K restored glory this Friday at Film Forum.
story of Zen’s tempestuous,
years-in-the-making production and initially hacked-up, Weinsteinized release
is an epic in itself. It was not until a nearly complete cut won universal
acclaim and the grand technical prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival that
Hu’s producers realized they had something special on their hands. Years later,
Zen’s influence would continue to be
felt in films like Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon and House of Flying
it all starts in an unassuming manner in a sleepy provincial village, where the
unmarried scholar-artist Gu Shengzhai’s lack of ambition drives his mother to
distraction. One day, a stranger in town agrees to sit for a portrait,
apparently as a way to prime Gu for local information and possibly kill some time.
When Gu starts to follow the mysterious Ouyang Nian, he soon detects the
outsider’s interest in three recent arrivals in town: the new doctor, a maybe
not so blind fortune teller, and Yang Hui-ching, the destitute beauty squatting
with her mother in the ramshackle Jinglu Fort next door.
the marriage proposal suggested by Gu’s mother is rebuffed, he and Yang still
become close. In fact, her rejection is mostly to protect the naïve scholar.
She is the last of a once great family decimated by Wei’s agents in the Eastern
Chamber. She has gone into hiding, with only the loyal Generals Shih and Lu for
protection. However, Yang is perfectly capable of taking care of herself under
ordinary circumstances. That was one of the benefits of her time living under Abbot
Hui’s protection. Of course, Hui is no longer inclined to involve himself in
such fleeting terrestrial concerns, but when the vicious Chief Commander Hsu
Hsien-chen arrives to re-establish Wei’s authority, all bets are off.
Zen is the granddaddy
of all modern Wuxia films and the starting point for any discussion of
Buddhist-themed cinema. Structurally, it also has a distinctive flow, allowing
characters to crest and fall in relatively importance, while still proceeding
in a logical fashion from point A to B and on to C. There are also some
massively cinematic martial arts sequences, co-choreographed by Hu regular Han
Ying-chieh and Hua Hui-ying.
the way, Gu evolves from a rather callow coward into the strategist who
masterminds their temporary victories of the Eastern Chamber. Shih Chun is
well-suited to Gu’s arc, nicely playing him with relaxed silliness in the early
going and cerebral intensity down the stretch. Feng Hsu shows the dazzling
action chops and slow-burning presence that made her Hu’s go-to heroine
throughout the 1970s. Han is also wonderfully devious as the wicked Commander Hsu.
Fans should also keep on the lookout during his scenes for a younger, svelter
Master Sammo Hung, appearing as one of the villain’s two sons. However, there
is no question Roy Chiao takes command of the film and elevates it into the
stratosphere with his performance as Abbot Hui. It takes serious gravitas to
reach nirvana on-screen, but he and Hu pull it off right before our eyes.
Zen does not feel like a three-hour film, even though
Hu often takes his time to deliberately set the scene and marvel at the
surrounding natural vistas. As a result, we really get a sense of the place and
the era in which these characters live (and die). Forty-five years after it was
more-or-less completed, A Touch of Zen still
ranks as one of the most beautiful action films ever made. Very highly recommended,
it opens this Friday (4/22) at Film Forum.
Labels: Buddhism on film, Hsu Feng, King Hu, Martial arts cinema, Roy Chiao