Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Touch of Zen (Xia nü)


A TOUCH OF ZEN (Xia nü)            B+                                                                                    Taiwan  (200 mi)  1969  ‘Scope  d: King Hu

Know thyself and victory is thine.                                                                                                  —Gu Shengzhai (Shi Jun)

For sheer audacity, this film has it all, beautifully filmed in Scope, yet it’s long and meandering, but never absent cinematic originality, yet boldly experimental, especially for the time.  This is literally a Peking Opera staged for the screen, given three-dimensional life and purpose, where the percussive sound design by itself is highly abstract, yet purposeful, becoming a visually experimental yet intensely philosophical wuxia film that offers viewers plenty to ponder, over-the-top and absurd at times, even incomprehensible, yet also filled with transcendental beauty, like the fight in the bamboo forest, or the ghostly battle royale in the haunted fort that plays out like Kurosawa’s macabre THRONE OF BLOOD (1957), where it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s imagined.  The film is significant in a number of ways, shot on location, offering a gripping martial arts plot, while also known for its lavish production, existential influences, and detailed character studies, making a wuxia film extremely personal, inherent with one’s own philosophical beliefs, subversively starring a female heroine, asking questions of identity, using ghosts to question the basic tenets of illusion and reality, blending both male and female protagonists to assert questions of free will and moral resolve, while also identifying with the need for role playing, which is particularly relevant in an authoritarian society, while promoting philosophical-religious views in an action film, offering a psychic ending that remains an unprecedented and transcendental experience in a Chinese film.  Winner of a Technical Grand Prize at Cannes in 1975, the sweeping panorama of nature sets the stage for what becomes a majestic tale on a grand scale, becoming the first wuxia film to be recognized with an international award, giving rise to a host of new directors from Hong Kong, like Tsui Hark and Ann Hui, both having worked with Hu, with the film providing a blueprint for a crossover film that would also be recognized in the West, like Ang Lee’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), or Zhang Yimou’s HERO (2002) or HOUSE OF FYING DAGGERS (2004), which were directly inspired by the bamboo forest sequence from the film, not to mention John Carpenter’s comic martial arts romp Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and later Jia Zhang-ke’s homage to Hu in 2013 Top Ten List #3 A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) along with the painterly opulence of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s slow rendering of a wuxia film in 2015 Top Ten List #9 The Assassin (Nie Yinniang).  The ghost story element may have spawned Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (Yan zhi kou) (1988), a film that brings the ghost story into the urban spaces of modern Hong Kong.  Wuxia films had been made going back to the 1920’s, yet this shatters the mold, inspired by the aesthetics of Japanese samurai films, defying everything that had come before, embarking on new territory, becoming a spiritual quest infused with Zen Buddhist beliefs, specifically the idea of achieving enlightenment or nirvana, becoming an impassioned plea for universal transcendence, while veering into the abstract realm of experimental film.  Production of the film began in 1967 but was not completed until 1969, much of it due to the painstakingly slow process that Hu worked, known for his meticulous attention to detail, from intricate storyboards to his oversight of props, costumes, and production design, featuring the use of split screens, where shooting certain scenes required being shot during certain seasonal times of year, supposedly waiting nine months for the overgrown grass at the fort to grow exactly right, with Hu routinely going over budget and over schedule.  Due to fierce competition, films were often rushed into the market during the boom time of Hong Kong’s film industry, yet due to its overall length, the producers, defying the director’s wishes, demanded that the film be exhibited in two parts (in 1970 and 1971) in Taiwan, where it languished at the box office.  The famous bamboo-forest fight climax of the first part was reprised at the beginning of the second.  Without Hu, the producers then recut the film into a two-hour version and rereleased it to theaters, where it performed no better.  In 1973, Hu regained control of the film and recut it according to his original intentions, as a three-hour film.  That version premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975.  To celebrate one hundred years of Chinese cinema, the Hong Kong Film Awards released a list of The Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures, with this listed at #9, Hong Kong Film Awards' List of The Best 100 Chinese Motion.

The term wuxia refers to a medium in Chinese literature that goes back centuries, dating back to the third century BC, traditionally following a protagonist from the lower class with no official affiliation who pursues righteousness or revenge, while adhering to a code of honor.  These books became extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century, but were banned by the government in the 1930’s due to their subversive and often supernatural elements, but returned to the movie screens in the 1950’s, borrowing style, choreography, and historical precedent from the Chinese opera, making period pieces that became fully modern in the 1960’s.  The commercial success of King Hu’s COME DRINK WITH ME (1966) and DRAGON INN (1967) gave rise to Bruce Lee’s success in the early 1970’s with martial arts films that were distributed worldwide.  However, the success of Dragon Inn (Long men kezhan) allowed Hu a much more ambitious undertaking, creating a landmark work with multi-faceted themes and interweaving storylines, combining martial arts swordplay with political allegory, a ghost story, a love story, while offering a comment on Chinese culture, referencing Chinese poetry, painting, philosophy, music, and history.  The experience of viewing the film is a kind of revelatory discovery in itself, like a series of spontaneous Zen moments of stillness interspersed in a martial arts action film, a highly unconventional and idiosyncratic work that attempts to transcend its own genre limitations.  First and foremost the darkness of the film feels unprecedented, with so much shrouded in shadows or complete darkness, there is plenty that happens that we simply fail to see, which seems intentional, as at the same time a storyline develops where figures are not who they appear to be, which is a rather sly and cunning way to tell a story, part of a deliberately elusive narrative structure, with puzzling messages and internal power struggles, along with mysterious noises throughout.  Adapted from and inspired by The Magnanimous Girl, a short story from Pu Songling’s ghost-story anthology Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a compilation of as many as 500 stories that has inspired many films, including the delightfully fun-filled, Tsui Hark produced A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987), this film is set in a remote mountain village during the Ming dynasty, where the initial story revolves around Gu Shengzhai (Shih Chun), an artist and failed scholar with considerable talent but no backbone and no ambition, living in a home that borders an abandoned Jing Lu Fort reputed to be haunted, seen arguing with his constantly nagging mother (Zhang Bingyu), featuring plenty of comic banter about marriage and career prospects.  When a stranger arrives asking for his portrait to be made, Ouyang Nian (Tien Peng), he starts up a pleasant friendship with Gu, just part of his ordinary routine, a befuddled character and an unworldly Mama’s boy who is slow to learn what’s transpiring around him, yet there is an unexplored and darker underside to this stranger, with Sergio Leone close-ups on his eyes, as he is really an agent for the Eastern Depot sent to discover hidden fugitives from justice.  His first sign is discovering that a blind man’s identity is really General Shi (Bai Ying), who is protecting Yang Huizhen (Hsu Feng, only 18 at the time), actually taking residence inside the fort, but remains shrouded in mystery, an apparent fugitive from justice, as a corrupt eunuch has tortured and murdered her father and wants to eradicate all remaining traces of the family after her father attempted to warn the Emperor of the eunuch’s blatant corruption.  An hour goes by before all this is revealed, told at a leisurely pace, suddenly erupting into a massive display of superior swordplay that seems to defy all the odds of physics, as they fly onto rooftops as the battle continues, a furious display of martial arts skill, all observed from a distance by Gu, who silently bears witness.  The local magistrate Xu (Cao Jian) seems to be an intermediary between the forces of evil and the Donglin movement in their resistance against the court eunuchs.  When Yang flees from the village back into the surrounding bamboo forests, a battle ensues, with piercing sunlight breaking through the trees, yet the ballet-like choreography with giant leaps into the branches couldn’t be more gracefully exquisite, as the 10-minute-long fight sequence in the bamboo forest took 25 days to shoot, eventually protected by a Buddhist monk, Abbot Hui-yuan (Roy Chiao), a benevolent presence who fights without weapons yet casually makes light work out of the ensuing soldiers, effectively providing safe shelter at the monastery.

Filmed by cinematographers Hua Huiying and Chou Yeh-Hsing, art direction by Chen Shanglin, with fight choreography by Pan Yao-kun and Han Yingjie, who also acts as Chief Commander Xu of the East Chamber secret police, distinguishing himself in battle near the end, while King Hu co-edits the film, meaning the film is an accurate vision of what he intended.  Among the more sophisticated interludes in the film is the lead-up to the first fight, filled with romantic suggestions, as Yang has finally invited Gu to meet her at her home, tenderly singing a song when he arrives, with the song lyrics written by Tang poet Li Bai (701 – 762), probably the most famous of all Chinese poets, immortalized by the way he died, drowning drunk, trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River (Li Bai drinking alone (with the moon, his shadow, & 43 ...).  Yet the exotic nature of this romantic encounter is mesmerizing, leading to a sexual tryst that takes place nearly entirely in the dark, Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon (月下獨酌) YouTube (3:20), yet in a split second she comes under vicious attack and is gone.  With its mystical beauty, exquisite photography, and moving, ambiguous depiction of faith, the film is a complex co-mingling of visual aesthetics and metaphysical inquiry, and the clearest expression of Zen Buddhism.  It is especially renowned for its radically disjunctive editing and fluid camera movements during fight scenes, framed by carefully positioned tree branches or goldenrod waving in the breeze.  Along with shots of mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets, another recurring motif is a spider spinning his web under the moonlight, which gives way to gravity-defying suspension between roof beams or darting between trees, yet entrapment is an essential theme.  Gu’s personality is completely transformed after his sexual rendezvous, becoming more aggressive, taking an active interest in military strategy, becoming more protective of Yang, where even she views him differently, becoming part of his inner transformation.  What he has in mind is daring and inspiring, two hundred trained soldiers against a mere handful, intentionally luring the Eastern Depot’s army invaders led by Men Da (Wang Rui) into the haunted fort and ensnaring them with a ghost trap, altering their sense of reality with planted booby-traps, setting off bells and fires and mysterious sounds, with silhouetted puppet figures giving off the impression that there are legions of soldiers, intentionally exacerbating the power of ghosts and illusion, making them uncomfortable, weakening their sense of stability, heightening their anxieties and fears through exaggeration, subjecting them to sudden, unexpected attacks, seemingly from out of nowhere.  The plan works to perfection, using the night as needed cover, allowing them no avenue of escape, creating not only mayhem but hysteria on the battlegrounds.  Gu is especially pleased with himself afterwards, laughing hysterically, though the grounds are littered with bodies, as the monks arrive in the morning to bury the bodies, a solemn act that contrasts with Gu’s euphoria derived from conceiving such a massive slaughter.  He’s driven by an obsessional need to find Yang afterwards, scouring the mountains and forests, but instead of Yang he finds a baby left on the rocks which he embraces, as there’s an attached note that she has delivered his child while retreating into the monastery as a nun, leaving his lineage intact, allowing him to accept his fate as a single father and return on the road back home.  But along the way he encounters the eunuch’s secret forces, with Abbot Hui-yuan sending out Yang and General Shi to protect him, while never revealing themselves.  Instead they come face to face with Chief Commander Xu, initially dispatching with his minions, but Xu is a formidable opponent, challenging all but the Abbot in an extended battle sequence, provoking plenty of chaos, evoking the militaristic mindset of war and destruction, while the Abbot is an ambassador of peace, who prevails in their encounter, leaving Xu bound with ropes, depicting the inescapability of destiny, followed by multiple images of waters and streams and waterfalls, with nature providing a sense of serenity.  There’s a growing sense of the mythical, as the Abbot and his group return back to the monastery, met by Xu pleading for forgiveness and repentance, but it’s all a trick for a surprise attack, wounding the Abbott while seriously injuring the others, but the Abbot is able to counter the move with his own fatal blow to Xu, who is left dazed, yet as he staggers, succumbing to hallucinatory images, he looks up on the mountain ledge and sees a silhouetted figure meditating against the golden sun, an image of Buddha and enlightenment, before the birds circle overhead in a symbol of his own death.  When a wounded Yang looks up, and also a retreating Gu with his baby, both entwined by fate, the sun becomes a halo over the monk’s head, a transcendental conclusion that indicates his attainment of nirvana.     

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