WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
This is the beginning of a series of write-ups in which I cover a film newly released by The Criterion Collection, a New York-based film restoration organization committed to restoring some of the world’s greatest and most sought-after cinematic achievements.
The floating mist, rising above the small town, engulfing it in a web of shadows. It comes in as a tide, a rumbling flood of mystery and misdirection. The floating camera, gracefully prancing throughout the landscape, an unstoppable observer of the mayhem occurring all around. As if this insane, always-accelerating world were to freeze for just a moment, the lens would capture it as a finesse frame, a beautiful visual poem. And, of course, the floating people. The laws and principles of physics being joyfully whisked away as the physically impossible becomes the only possibility. The moon’s light at dusk being upstaged by the airborne warriors, effortlessly creating their own construction of the world in which they live.
A Touch Of Zen is the grandiose wuxia epic that inspired the legions of action filmmakers that continue to prosper today. Its mere scope and ambition reaches out far beyond any other film of its era. It is a bold and wholly creative piece of artistry. It is dazzling, and hauntingly so, for as we continue to see it today, each frame boasts its own collection and sparks of pure, unaltered amazement; never has a film been so human in a character-based form, and yet so inhuman as to sheer craft and construction. Its own principles rely on not what we’ve seen in the picture, but what we infer from it based upon small doses. A door opens, a new face is revealed, a paintbrush is applied gently onto a canvas, and the story in the film becomes just barely less confined. It is in this vast world, this gargantuan, gorgeous landscape, composed by the wonderful director King Hu (1932-1997), that the film actually becomes about the small details, the foreground, the little anecdotes effervescently bubbling up to the film’s surface.
Hu paints his world with these details ever clearly, especially in a geographical sense -- we must know, according to him, this location inside-out, consciously recognizing the stage of our story, before we can move forward to altercations; for a martial arts film, the actual sequences of battle and pandemonium come slowly, the first sight of one clocking in at roughly fifty-seven minutes deep. We spend a near hour not only getting to know the gorgeous locale, but also the characters that inhabit it -- characters whose lives are filled with a somber emptiness, something they are missing -- for some, it is a wife, or grandchildren, or a family life; for others it is retribution. The inherent notion by an audience is one of tentative sympathy, only offered through the time we spend knowing them and their universally challenging hope of something to happen.
If we are to outline a story, it is best to stay brief: a small-village portrait artist named Ku who lives with his mother (this character being the one who desires his “Destined One” -- and his mother desires it, too) suddenly crosses paths with a young princess by the name of Yang, who is hiding out from a general who massacred her family. Intriguing logline, but that’s just an outline: the real basis of the film relies on two key aspects. The first is the characterization. Those characters we follow in the village start to mold their own personalities in our minds, people who we may have known, though faces we have not seen. The princess is the one who seeks retribution, not honor; her soul is cast through her persistence. She is assisted by a limited number of monks, but mostly by Ku, and in him she sees an incomplete human, one woven together but never finalized. She teaches him of passion, grace, dignity -- and through Ku’s eyes is seen the horror of waiting, and the power of pursuing. This boils into a sudden change of persona, as Ku begins to become vital for Yang, helping her avoid being tangled in a web like the spiders we continually view throughout the runtime, including the stark opening.
The second aspect of the film’s basis is a surprising one by name, but unsurprising by glimpse at the film: the aesthetic and cutting. King Hu is a master of not only composition and the geography of a sequence, and the gorgeous splash of bursting color from each corner of the lens, but also in the timing of his action sequences; Hu was one of the first to truly experiment with the ASL (average shot-length) of an action sequence, orchestrating his cuts and frequent use of “pausing” a scene to capture its full effect. In seconds we can be brought all around one single altercation, each shot revealing something new about the space and the character’s stance relative to one another, and become easily mesmerized -- fast enough to be dazed, and yet our eyes catch the realism of the moment. These are real people, seemingly, gliding through the trees and slicing with the blade of the sword -- but they are simply too quick for our eyes to fix on. And yet, some shots hold, not just unusual for the ASL of the sequence, but of any sequence in the film, almost to emphasize a pause or crucial point in the fight. There is fist after fist, jab after jab, but Hu understands his highest shots, and through the cutting of the film, relays to us not only what is happening, but also, perhaps more importantly, who it is happening to (after all, that is what solidifies our care for the characters).
The film rests its breathless climax upon a final halo, a flare of peace and hope, dignity and unity, a signal of the titular zen we’ve been glimpsing between the frames, now finally seen in full form, awaiting our acceptance. It is haunting, intimidating -- and it is intriguing, too. It looks to hold the very secrets of which we’ve wanted all along. If patience is indeed a virtue and pursuit indeed a great strength, we trust in Hu that through his art, and through our own reflection, we may finally be at peace with the established images of the finale, and have grace throughout it as well. Not only a power-punch of golden blood and clanging swords and sky-high trees, but an intimate portrait, much like the ones Ku would draw in his studio, A Touch of Zen is an appreciable representation of the importance of character, and the face of destiny. It is above all who see it, an artifact of great truth, and it is art, indeed, of the highest order.
The Criterion Collection released a DVD/Blu-Ray restoration of A Touch of Zen on July 19, 2016.
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comments on the screen by nolan lampson.