Sword and cinematic sorcery
King Hu's "A Touch of Zen" differs from his earlier "Dragon Gate
Inn" and later "The Valiant Ones" in that the film begins not with a
heroic character, but humble one: Ku Shen Chai (Shi Chun), a scholar
who wastes his education and intelligence writing letters and
painting portraits on commission. Ku is visited by Ouyang Nin (Ting
Peng) who asks for a portrait; Ku, sketching, is struck by the
intensity of Ouyang's eyes. When Ouyang abruptly leaves him to
follow herbalist Dr. Lu (Sit Hon), Ku is intrigued by his manner,
and follows him. Hu stages, shoots and edits this surveillance-
within-a-surveillance so skillfully that not only are we caught up
with it, we also get a quick lesson in the town's local geography:
we know where Ku's portrait shop is in relation to Dr. Lu's herb
stand; we know exactly at what point Dr. Lu disappears (to the
consternation of Ouyang Nin); when Dr. Lu reappears behind watchful
Ku, we know enough to be as startled as he is.
The marvelous sequence, utilizing not a line of dialogue, does
several things at once: it strikes the right note of intrigue and
mystery, introduces three important characters (Ku, Ouyang Nin, Dr.
Lu), sketches their relationship to each other (follower, follower,
followed), emphasizes the fascination Ouyang Nin has for Ku. It also
shows Hu the director, effortlessly tossing off a masterful piece of
cinema for no other reason than that it serves the story.
Ku's home is a hovel in the abandoned Ching Lu Fort, where his
mother berates him for being too lazy to take the civil service
exam; she informs him that blind man Shih (Pai Ying) predicts his
lucky star will work hard this year (ironic statement, considering),
and suggests that he marry Miss Yang, the new girl next door. Ku's
scenes with his mother give the film some welcome comic moments;
they humanize Ku and the film for us. Ku is the stick by which we
measure the martial and moral stature of Ouyang, Dr. Lu,
fortuneteller Shih, Miss Yang, and all the other extraordinary
people to come; he is also our representative, the lens through
which we view both heroes and villains of the film, the man we
identify with. We all know someone like Ku; we may at one point or
another have been like Ku, a man too smart and lazy for his own
good, willing to drift along the course of his life until thrown
into a sharp curve--at which point he pays dearly for his passivity.
Ku eventually learns that Miss Yang is the daughter of an eminent
officer, killed for exposing the corrupt practices of Eunuch Wei
(eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty were famous for their power, and abuse
of it). She escaped with two of her father's trusted officers,
General Shih (the blind man's real identity) and General Lu, and
with the help of Abbot Hui Yuan (an impressively impassive Roy
Chiao), hides first in a Buddhist monastery, then in Ku's town (the
basic plot bears some resemblance to Akira Kurosawa's "The Hidden
Fortress," though its direct inspiration is the short story "The
Magnanimous Girl"--the film's title in Chinese--by Pu Sung Ling).
Ku, whose marriage proposal to Miss Yang was politely turned down,
now proposes to help the girl against her enemies; Yang admits she
has no choice but to accept.
In the meantime, Ouyang Nin has left; Ku reasons that he is trying
to send a message out, and must be stopped. Ku, Miss Yang, and
Generals Shih and Lu follow Ouyang Nin into a bamboo forest, where
he's seen talking to two of the personal guards of his superior, Mun
Ta. The ensuing battle is a takeoff on a scene in Kurosawa's "Seven
Samurai," where men are sent to intercept spies in a forest; Hu
takes Kurosawa's taut little sequence and develops it into a
remarkable piece of cinema, perhaps the most famous from the film
(Ang Lee borrowed an image or six, plus much of the film's emotional
tone, for his anemically inferior "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").
Looking at it some thirty-plus years later, the fight may not be as
elaborate as in Tsui Hark's "Swordsman," or expensively staged, as
in Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time," but these directors (and
practically all subsequent "wuxia pian" filmmakers) use "Zen's"
bamboo sequence as the standard against which to measure their own,
and by necessity, exceed; as is, it's possibly the most beautifully
shot, superbly edited fight sequence in all of Chinese cinema.
Hu enlists nature to his aid--the very bamboos quake in fear, while
mist gives proceedings an eerie, detached air. Like all great
onscreen battles, there is a pleasing structure discernible in the
seeming chaos: Shih tells Yang that the two guards are too powerful
together, and should be attacked one by one. Shih and Yang advance;
their silence, their tense expressions show awareness of the danger.
Hu draws the moment out to almost unbearable length; when one guard
emerges from the fog, then the other, their worst fears are
Hu lets us take the situation in with a long shot, Shih and Yang
facing the formidable pair; another pause, and the four launch into
furious motion. Hu shoots the action in brief flashes, almost too
fast for the eye to follow; when he assembles the shots the action
overall is miraculously coherent, but somehow indistinct, as if
caught fleetingly from the corner of the eye. The impression is of
incredible speed and force, which Hu reinforces with the clang and
swish of blades; when Miss Yang leaps high up the bamboos to dive
down on her enemy, her clothes make a terrible fluttering noise,
like a hawk plunging on its prey. A comical shot of Ku and Lu
staring, wide-eyed, punctuates the confrontation.
Ku learns that two hundred men and Mun Ta himself is coming. Ku
lures them into town, then into Ching Lu Fort where, under cover of
night, the men are frightened by straw dummies and tinkling bells,
attacked by hidden arrows and catapults. The action sequences seem
magnificent--this may be one of the few battles in "wuxia" cinema
where the fighting actually makes tactical sense. Hu trumps the
battle, however, with the morning after: Ku wanders about, laughing--
perhaps at his ingenuity, perhaps at the silliness of grown men
frightened by straw men and superstition. It all seems like a
child's game, a silly game; then Ku sees the bodies of the men he
has killed, and the realization crashes down on him of the massacre
he has perpetuated. Buddhist monks arrive, led by Abbot Hui Yuan.
The Abbot's silence in response to Ku's questions is appalling, not
so much because Ku is irritating (he is, a bit) but because the
question seems irrelevant in the face of general tragedy; without a
single tear shed, Chiao manages to suggest that the Abbot's grief is
immeasurable. Ku eventually learns--from his mother, of all people--
that Yang has left, and asked that he not follow her.
A note on Yang's character: Ku is the lens through which we see King
Hu's world; we feel what he feels, we hurt when he's hurt (or
abandoned). The first time Ku bumps into Yang, all he sees is a
pretty face; he's just been hunting ghosts, and in a comically odd
moment, raises a wooden sword printed with spells as if to exorcise
her (you wonder if, looking back, it ever occurred to him that he
should have stabbed her--that she really was a malignant soul after
all). He learns more about her through the course of several months;
when he (and we) finally learn the whole truth, his (and our)
reaction feels somewhat more complex.
It's a remarkable character portrait, skillfully sketched through
the eyes of another. Yang does not behave like a normal woman; if
anything, she has at various points lied, whored, and murdered her
way across the land. But there are reasons behind her actions,
stemming from great necessity, or great pain; part of her
fascination for Ku may stem from his gradual understanding of her
hidden motives. Her sudden retreat from Ku into seclusion, an act Ku
may or may not have understood, is possibly a response to the
killings, a way to ask forgiveness from all the dead for her crimes.
The first half--or first three-fourths--of the film feels like a
superbly made "wuxia pian," with death and violence served up in
generous portions; the rest feels like a repudiation of all that
savagery, a reminder that there is more to life than vengeance.
Suddenly the Zen-like elements--shots of breathtaking landscapes,
fluttering birds, webspinning spiders--come to fore. Ku finally
locates Yang, but the resolution of their relationship is, at best,
bittersweet; then Ku is threatened, Yang comes to his defense, and a
final battle ensues between Yang, Shih, and General Hsu, Eunuch
Wei's commander-in-chief (Han Yin Chieh, also the film's fight
choreographer), with a last-minute intervention from Abbot Hui Yuan.
Again Hu dazzles with a flurry of techniques: quick cuts between
bouncing monks and quivering grass give the impression that the
Abbot is levitating; a sudden jump-cut when Commander Hsu attacks
suggests super-speed; golden blood gushes out when a dagger is
uprooted; a skull with fluttering tail plummets from the sky.
You might call the ending more than a little strange, a climax that
sheds all trappings of the "wuxia pian" genre and, like Stanley
Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (only on a far smaller budget),
makes a wild stab at transcendence. I think it succeeds more than
fails, myself; you end up walking out of the theater in a
contemplative, Zenlike mood--not quite fully understanding what you
saw, yet understanding that even this may not matter, after all...
(First published in Menzone Magazine, February, 2004)
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