A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

A film viewing and discussion club for Criterion Collection releases.
Post Reply
Message
Author
User avatar
Mr Sausage
Not PETA approved
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 9:02 pm
Location: Canada

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jan 06, 2020 4:44 pm

DISCUSSION ENDS MONDAY, January 20th.

Members have a two week period in which to discuss the film before it's moved to its dedicated thread in The Criterion Collection subforum. Please read the Rules and Procedures.

This thread is not spoiler free. This is a discussion thread; you should expect plot points of the individual films under discussion to be discussed openly. See: spoiler rules.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

I encourage members to submit questions, either those designed to elicit discussion and point out interesting things to keep an eye on, or just something you want answered. This will be extremely helpful in getting discussion started. Starting is always the hardest part, all the more so if it's unguided. Questions can be submitted to me via PM.

User avatar
feihong
Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 12:20 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#2 Post by feihong » Mon Jan 06, 2020 5:45 pm

Well, I don't mean to specifically call Domino out here, but in Domino's reviews of several King Hu blu-rays released recently, there's been the suggestion that the King Hu films in general don't rise above being very competently-made action films.

I've not agreed with that assessment––they always seemed to be more than that to me––but I've been at a loss to explain exactly why I think so. So I wondered if anyone might have any a way in to King Hu's films––and Touch of Zen definitely seems like the way, in if there is one––that illuminates what more is there?

Does that make sense as a starting point? This is my first time participating in these discussions.

User avatar
feihong
Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 12:20 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#3 Post by feihong » Mon Jan 06, 2020 6:11 pm

I will say, pointing towards Domino's point of view, that I think the themes that Hu proposes to deal with in many of his films are not complicated, and maybe not all that deeply–drawn within the movies. Hu told Cheng Pei Pei when filming Come Drink With Me that the point was that the characters were all drunk, in a way––drunk on power, drunk on their own self–confidence, etc.

When he talked about Touch of Zen, Hu said he was trying to make a movie where he injected a mere "touch" of zen into an adventure story. I think that theme is handled in an interesting way in the film––with the monks literally just intruding on the adventure story. There is a sense that the adventure story in the film is breaking down––Lady Yang and General Shih get progressively more tired and brutalized as the story goes on––the more they fight, the harder it is to sustain the fighting. And yet the abbot Hui Yuan seems inexhaustible, perhaps because he sees the battle as a transcendent exchange of forces, not as a combat with an emotional current or anchor. So maybe that theme is better explicated in this later film?

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#4 Post by domino harvey » Mon Jan 06, 2020 7:29 pm

I should clarify that there’s nothing wrong with a good action movie— I’m not sure there’s a lot to say about some action movies I like more than even the best Hu film I’ve seen, such as Scaramouche or Le bossu or any of the first four Die Hards, beyond general praise for their effectiveness/skill/entertainment value. A film doesn’t necessarily have to be deep to be successful, though I gather for you and seemingly many others Hu’s films function on a higher plane, which makes your question a relevant one and I look forward to hearing more responses

User avatar
knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#5 Post by knives » Mon Jan 06, 2020 7:40 pm

I think being well versed in Chinese/ Taiwanese politics of the time as well as Buddhism helps with highlighting how these films aren't simply good actioners (though they are that as well). I'm not arguing Hu as Oshima or Scorsese in his delving into those subjects, but he is very blunt in his usage once you know what symbols to pick up on (and occasionally you don't even need that such as with this film and Raining in the Mountain). It does help to know the myths and events that he is using though in appreciating what makes him different from Die Hard.
Last edited by knives on Mon Jan 06, 2020 8:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#6 Post by domino harvey » Mon Jan 06, 2020 8:06 pm

I think you meant “aren’t,” unless you agree with me! I have no doubt there is a degree of historical commentary I’m missing from Hu’s films, but I’m not sure me knowing the context of the French Revolution beckoning really adds anything meaningful to the quality of Scaramouche, for instance

User avatar
feihong
Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 12:20 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#7 Post by feihong » Mon Jan 06, 2020 8:25 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Mon Jan 06, 2020 7:29 pm
A film doesn’t necessarily have to be deep to be successful, though I gather for you and seemingly many others Hu’s films function on a higher plane, which makes your question a relevant one and I look forward to hearing more responses
Yes, that's exactly it. It wasn't my intent to throw you under the bus for what you had said, just to use it as a prompt and see where it got us in terms of teasing out meanings and qualities from this movie. It's something I've been thinking about since I heard you first express those doubts.

It's my instinctual feeling that the King Hu films in general and Touch of Zen in particular work on a higher level than well–made action, but that said, I'm not entirely sure Hu intends them to work on any such higher plane.

I was thinking this in particular because after Fate of Lee Khan was released from Eureka I watched Wu Ma's Deaf–Mute Heroine, because it starred Helen Ma from the Lee Khan film. It struck me, as it struck me when I watched other martial arts films contemporaneous to the King Hu movies, how much more artistically composed the King Hu films always seemed than the pictures of his contemporaries. The other wuxia films of the era are much cruder in terms of things like character motivations. They often don't seem to have themes worth speaking of at all. They all lack the craftsmanship Hu brings to costuming and sets; none of them utilize history and literature in the way the Hu films do. And while most of the wuxia films made after Come Drink With Me borrow some of the fight staging of Hu, very few of them manage to create the tension in a fight scene that Hu does. I think Hu is in part a better student of Kurosawa in this respect––his characters stalk one another, plotting and counterplotting movements before making attempts to engage in swordplay. Characters in other movies of the era like Deaf–Mute Heroine stalk around holding their weapons, but they don't appear to be having the same kind of psychological battles. And other wuxia filmmakers don't think to do with their stories what Hu does here, merging folk legends into a new film narrative. Other wuxia pictures of the era are more commonly straight adaptations of serialized stories and the like.

At any rate, I feel that in terms of aesthetics and craft Hu is making choices way beyond what other filmmakers of his era were doing––at least in the same genre. Whether those aesthetics amount to more than 1st place in his genre is another thing.

But then in terms of Hu's auteurship, there's a lot to unpack. He was definitely the chief aesthetician on his films, choosing fabrics for the costumes and beating a drum on set to essentially "conduct" the fight scene movements, and eventually doing his own calligraphy for the credits. Cheng Pei Pei said she developed back problems trying to frame low-angle shots the way Hu did on her own directorial debut. His style is very much his own. But his story telling is a little different. Recently I read this Grady Hendrix piece on The Battle of Ono––a film where Hu planned to set up another fort battle similar to the one in Touch of Zen. David Henry Hwang was the initial screenwriter who worked on the script, and he says this about building the screenplay with Hu:

"He had general notes, and specific scenes that he wanted in the movie, but he was less concerned about how to get from one moment that he wanted to another moment he wanted. In that respect, he was pretty laissez-faire about how I would end up laying the track. He had an overall sense of the story, though."

So much paints Hu as a stylist more than as a sure storyteller, and yet, I don't think there are more compelling stories in most of the wuxia contemporary to Hu's films. A Touch of Zen is much more narratively complex than other wuxia movies of the time.

User avatar
knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#8 Post by knives » Mon Jan 06, 2020 8:38 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Mon Jan 06, 2020 8:06 pm
I think you meant “aren’t,” unless you agree with me! I have no doubt there is a degree of historical commentary I’m missing from Hu’s films, but I’m not sure me knowing the context of the French Revolution beckoning really adds anything meaningful to the quality of Scaramouche, for instance
Whatever do you mean? :-" I agree with you, but I think the difference with Scaramouche is that film isn't interested in the revolution except as window dressing. It gives the film an aesthetic. Hu strikes me as actively engaging with these matters which also are very contemporary. Not just concerns about one of the largest religions of the region, but also the Chinese revolution and what that meant for Taiwan in his own life. While not good many of Hu's earliest films were propaganda for the government in an extreme and blind way. That political way of thinking doesn't seem to have left him with Lee Khan and other films transplanting events Hu lived through to the past. A better comparison than Scaramouche would probably be something like Little Big Man retelling the Vietnam war through the eyes of a western.

User avatar
Mr Sausage
Not PETA approved
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 9:02 pm
Location: Canada

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#9 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Jan 14, 2020 10:11 pm

My first wuxia film from the 70s. I’m more familiar with wuxia films from the 90s and later, and the martial arts films I have seen from the 70s are more Bruce Lee and Chang Cheh movies, or stuff like 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Five Fingers of Death. So I felt I had both some and no idea what to expect.

The plot is more convoluted and political than I expected, and there was no hurry to get to the fighting, which is a bit unusual for a martial arts film. There is less a reliance on wires than later wuxia, and more, er, trampolines. The considerable pictorial beauty was expected, tho’ no less pleasing for that.

The film seems an historical melodrama, a political fable, and an action film. I don’t think I’d judge it next to, say, Scaramouche or The Adventures of Robinhood. I like both those films, but the political or historical content of their stories is incidental to the mode of storytelling in a way I don’t think true here. The film is much closer to many Samurai films from the 60s, where the political and philosophical complexities of the period are the central element of the drama, but are worked out through swordplay. With Hu’s film, I don’t know enough about the context to judge properly, but it does seem an argument between Confucian philosophy and scholarly values, the duties owed to family, and the demands of the current political situation. The latter half of the movie often takes on the rhythms of the folktale.

I’d need more context to judge the meaning of the film (certainly the monks have to be playing a more significant role in the film than mere plot conveniences; they seem to give the film its value system), but it’s a lot of fun--vibrant, colourful, full of incident and character. I had a good time.

User avatar
therewillbeblus
Joined: Tue Dec 22, 2015 3:40 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#10 Post by therewillbeblus » Tue Jan 14, 2020 10:27 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
Tue Jan 14, 2020 10:11 pm
The plot is more convoluted and political than I expected, and there was no hurry to get to the fighting, which is a bit unusual for a martial arts film.
While Hu’s plots are often both complicated and political, this is an outlier for pacing. Something like Dragon Inn, my favorite Hu that I’ve seen, feels lean and action-packed, with the build up reminiscent of a chamber thriller. I liked A Touch of Zen a lot but some of his other films follow a more typical and tight-knit actioner, not that there’s anything wrong with a change-up

User avatar
knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

#11 Post by knives » Wed Jan 15, 2020 8:43 am

Though some are even looser with less action like my beloved Raining in the Mountains.

Post Reply