a touch of zen (king hu, 1970)
Thursday, December 22, 2022
This is the thirteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 13 is called "Long Time Running Week":
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a runtime equal to or greater than 180 minutes.
I was introduced to King Hu three years ago, during my first Letterboxd challenge, with Come Drink with Me for Wuxia Week ... it was an early example of that genre. A Touch of Zen is probably Hu's most acclaimed work ... it's #346 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It's an epic that sneaks up on you.
I admit my mind was drifting during the first of the film's three hours. It presented a 14th century isolated mountain village ... we meet various characters, some potential subplots are introduced, but the entire movie at this point is leisurely, with none of the over-the-top "wire fu" I expect from the genre. But Hu knows what he's up to, including disrupting the norms of the genre. Once the action begins, our appreciation is increased because we know some of the characters in depth thanks to that leisurely beginning. Admittedly, I much preferred the latter 2/3 of the film, and my mind quit drifting. I've seen a dozen or so wuxia films over the years, but I am far from an expert, and am mostly impressed by action, since I lack the historical knowledge that would provide some context.
This was the first time I've seen Hsu Feng, who was very good as a beautiful ass-kicker. Her character, Yang, has many levels. We first see her as a potential marriage partner for Gu, a scholar and painter. We learn that she is a fugitive, and over time, we see that she has supreme martial arts skills. She also has a magical ability to instill skills into others ... after she sleeps with Gu, the formerly awkward bumbler becomes a master strategist and something of a martial arts champion himself. I loved her character, and I loved what Feng brought to that character.
Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan are also in the cast in minor roles. Jackie's role was so minor, I never actually spotted him, but Sammo takes part in a couple of battles late in the film. Mostly, their names in the credits are interesting, but this is not a Sammo film, it's a King Hu film starring Hsu Feng, and if you make it past that first hour, you will be rewarded. And it looks gorgeous, besides.