Friday, August 15, 2008

A Touch of Zen

Xia nu; action drama, Taiwan, 1969 / 1971; D: King Hu, S: Shih Jun, Hsu Feng, Pai Ying, Roy Chiao, Han Yin-Chieh

Schoolar and painter Ku lives in some remote Chinese village during the Ming dynasty, often listening to his mother lamenting about how he should marry, since he is over 30, and find a better job as an official. One day a stranger, Oyan, arrives in town, who is actually a secret agent searching for the female fugitive Yang. Ku falls in love with Yang after he meets her in a old house and is angered by the fact that she is persecuted just because her father wanted to warn the Emperor of his evil associate, Eunuch Wei. Ku and Yang lure the East Chamber guards and use tricks to scare them and make them think the house is haunted by ghosts. After that battle, Ku searches for the missing Yang. When he finds her, she gives him her baby and tells him she wants to stay in the Buddhist temple. Buddhist monk Abbot Hui defends Ku from the evil commander who dies, while the monk finds enlightenment on a cliff.

Legendary cult classic, often cited as one of the best movies from Chinese cinema, King Hu's "A Touch of Zen" is an unusual martial arts film where martial arts and action are actually less important and featured in the background - for instance, the first battle sequence appears some 60 minutes into the film - while the author slyly and slowly crafts a smashing little story about spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist values. For a 3 hour film, "Zen" doesn't have enough features that justify such a long running time and some of the cheesy acting seems rather dated today, but it's strange and loose structure is something that shouldn't be criticized, but praised for it's original approach where the clumsy hero Ku accidentally gets stuck in the middle of a fight between the innocent female fugitive Yang and evil corrupt guards who prosecute her, resulting in a few "roughly poetic" sequences, like the one where Yang bounces on a sword and jumps some 30 feet up on a roof or the fight in the bamboos forest that was referenced in Yimou's "House of Daggers".

Completely unwesternized, the story shifts from one level to another, but if there is one sequence that should be considered a masterwork, then it's the absolutely brilliant, magical and esoteric ending that contemplates a few deep thoughts about the point of violence, misguided aggression, selfish actions of individuals who prosecute the innocent who can reveal their evil and inner peace. Namely, the Buddhist monk Abbot and his students protect the fugitives from the government agents, who simply cannot beat them - by using only his hands, the giant and wise Abbot always avoids every arrow or sword and beats the agents. The image of him bleeding gold and standing on a cliff, in front of the Sun, so that it seems as if his head is 'illuminated', is one of the most unknown iconic images of cinema, so much better than the silly famous icons like "You talking to me?" or "Here's Johnny" that don't mean anything.


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