Thursday, 21 January 2016

A Touch of Zen (1971)

King Hu’s remarkable, epic martial arts movie that influenced Ang Lee’s  CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) amongst others gets a UK Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of Eureka.

Ku (Shih-Jun, coming across a bit like a Taiwanese Kevin Eldon) is an unambitious painter who lives in a remote village. A stranger arrives in town and wants his portrait painted, but actually he’s there looking for Yang (Hsu Feng) a female fugitive whose entire family have been given a death sentence because her father offended the corrupt Eunuch Wei. Yang has taken up residence in a crumbling mansion reputed to be haunted. 

Ku befriends Yang and ends up sleeping with her. Deciding to help her in fighting Eunuch Wei’s forces, he helps design a complicated ghost trap for her pursuers. Delayed for a time, they continue the chase and eventually the film ends in that very weird and trippy way that only movies of this period do.

A TOUCH OF ZEN is an epic film. It’s not an epic plot, mind, in fact there’s not much more to the story than what I’ve described above (although there is a bit). It is, however epic in terms of its look and feel. This has to be one of the most beautifully and carefully directed films of the period. King Hu has an eye for landscape compositions that make him the Ridley Scott of his day. The opening forty minutes, with the mostly deserted village and ghost house where the wind never stops blowing feels like top notch martial arts Hammer. Later the scope opens out, with some absolutely breathtaking scenery used to its full advantage.

Originally released in two parts, it’s probably the bamboo tree fight approximately ninety minutes in that A TOUCH OF ZEN is most famous for. In fact it was repeated at the start of the second movie. Anyone thinking they’re going to get a 180 minute martial arts action film should be warned, however. There are some excellent fight sequences in this, but most of the movie isn’t like that at all. If you’re more predisposed to action, just sit back and let Hu’s gorgeous compositions drench you in gloriousness until the next jumping around bit.

Eureka’s three disc Blu-ray and DVD set contains the newly restored Taiwanese print, and very lovely it looks too in this complete 180 minute version. Extras include a booklet with archival material on the film and its director. The third disc was not made available for review but apparently contains the documentary King Hu 1932 - 1997, a new video essay by critic David Cairns, and more. 

Eureka's three disc Region B / 2 Blu-ray and DVD set of King Hu's A TOUCH OF ZEN is out on 25th January 2016

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