a touch of zen (king hu, 1970)

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.

what i watched

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Watched this again ... earlier review is linked in the title.

a brighter summer day (edward yang, 1991)

This is more of a placeholder than a review. I watched A Brighter Summer Day under less than ideal circumstances, and don't really feel competent to evaluate it yet. It's just under 4 hours long, and I had figured I'd have to at least invent an intermission. But then the Criterion Channel didn't want to work properly in my browser, and by the time I realized that and switched back to the TV, I'd already lost a day. And I was half asleep for that one. So I ended up watching about 90 minutes the first day, 30 minutes the second day, and the rest of the movie on the third day. Since this is a movie that rewards close attention, I was not giving it the respect it deserved.

I had trouble keeping the characters straight. This might have been a result of my fragmented viewing, I can't say. Also, Paul Dano notes on one of the extras that he thinks it would be useful for viewers to first learn a bit about Taiwanese culture (it takes place in a few years around 1960). I was often confused, and I think Dano is right. I'd just read an essay about how spoilers are actually good for you, and it's possible I'd have had an easier time following the film if I already knew what would be happening. (This makes it a good candidate for a second viewing.)

Finally, I was reminded a bit of the great City of God, one of my favorite movies. Like A Brighter Summer Day, City of God deals with youth gangs. But that movie's characters were a lot like the gangsters I was used to from the U.S., in particular Menace II Society. I lacked a deep understand of life in the favelas, but I felt I knew the characters. The young boys in A Brighter Summer Day are connected to American pop culture as well ... the title comes from the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" But they seem to draw their cues from a different place than what I'm used to as an American. City of God was easier for me to connect to, compared to this film.

In the meantime, I must mention the exquisite visual compositions in the film. I've only seen one other movie by Yang, Yi Yi, which I liked but which I confess I don't remember very much about.

Here is a scene I particularly liked, in part because it makes an American pop culture reference you know I'll love: teens are at the movies, and on the soundtrack, you can hear that they are watching Rio Bravo:

#123 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.