I'll admit I usually avoid the Harvard Film Archive just because they're often far too hoighty toighty for me, and I have a prejudice against Harvard in general. BUT they had a King Hu series and I'd never seen any of his movies and A Touch of Zen looked awesome, so here we are. This epic (as in, a long tale featuring heroic adventures, not like "whoa that's totally epic!") film crosses the three-hour mark, but thanks to an interesting plot and lovely cinematography, it rarely drags in its storytelling. Seen mostly through the perspective of Ku (Shih Jun), a somewhat bumbling painter-scholar, it follows the intrigue surrounding a mysterious young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng). Ku finds her reserved but beautiful, and tries to befriend her, but soon it is revealed that she is a fugitive from the law, and a stoic stranger recently arrived in town is a brute from the evil government branch of East Chamber guards sent to claim her. Luckily she and her fellow escaped prisoners are capable fighters, and with Ku's strategic aid they set up a trap to fight the various groups who've come to claim her. But the head of the East Chamber is unwilling to cede to Miss Yang, and their struggle seems never-ending.
Leisurely and thoughtful in its narrative, A Touch of Zen is both an exciting action film and an engaging period drama. At first I was intimidated by the film's length but so much happens and there are so many interesting characters that it wasn't much of an issue. The story is varied, though it does drag at parts and skip around strangely at others, and I loved most of the characters. There's a magical monk who's so fucking zen he can stare you down and force enlightenment upon you, and there's a hilariously naggy mother, and an awesome general played by Bai Ying who is kind of really bad at pretending to be blind but happens to be the most attractive dude in the movie (not that I regularly rate all castmembers in every movie according to looks or anything WHAT). But most importantly, there's Miss Yang, who is SO. COOL. She starts off as wonderfully cold and enigmatic and Ku thinks she's a poor woman who needs his help but WHOOPS turns out she's a totally kickass fighter and it's GREAT. She and General Shih just hop around the Taiwan countryside with swords clinking and throwing daggers gleaming. And I love them both.
King Hu is naturally preoccupied with the "zen" aspect of the English title, incorporating a group of Buddhist monks as small but key figures in the overall story, and focusing on their interactions with various heroes and villains. It's an interesting sub-theme to a tale otherwise concerned with political corruption, vengeance, and tepid romance. I think my favorite thing about the whole movie is that while there is a pregnancy involved, it's never a thing. Like the story doesn't take a break to deal with it, and the female character never becomes defined by her pregnancy or even burdened by it because it's just not shown. They skip it entirely so it's like here's a lady being awesome, and here's a lady being awesome and also there's a baby near her. I liked that because it felt atypical to how women and pregnancy are often handled, especially in action- or thriller-type films. So many writers seem to run out of ideas when they have a strong woman, and they throw a pregnancy at her because why not? And then that's the only part of her that matters anymore. And I hate that reduction of women to just baby-carriers, especially since there are so few great female characters in action movies as it is. But here's one! Yay!
Pair This Movie With: This film was an influence on Ang Lee when he was making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (aka my new favorite movie, hello) so while that'd be a long day, it'd be a great, ass-kicking double feature! You'd get not one but TWO bamboo grove fights!