Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Apr 30, 2016 7:03 pm 
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JANUS King Hu Re-releases in 4K restorations: DRAGON INN (1967) and A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)

I leave a full description to the experts. This is just a jotting, a personal introduction.

I knew the titles, indirectly - Tsai Ming-liang's 2004 Goodbye, Dragon Inn is one reference; in 2013 (NYFF) Jia Zhang-ke's episodic depiction of declining morals and morale in modern China, A Touch of Sin is the other. Now I now what they were referring to: epic examples of the wuxia or martial arts hero genre of film said to have influenced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, Quentin Tarantino, and much else. (I don't even know for sure if these English titles for Tsai's and Jia's films correspond exactly to the original Chinese ones, but they show we're dealing with the common coin of the Wuxia realm.

A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)

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And they are grand, and show no signs of dating. The use of wires but not of CGI is an advantage, not a defect. I've watched them in reverse order, getting the three-hour Touch of Zen out of the way before the merely 111-minute Dragon Inn. What's impressive about A Touch of Zen is how quiet it is - at first. An hour goes by before there is even a real fight. There's an emphasis on poverty, modesty, deception, concealment, mystery. The other thing is how many genres this movie encompasses: it's spiritual and symbolic; sociological; psychological. As the Criterion Collection synopsis declares, A Touch of Zen is "at once a wuxia film, the tale of a spiritual quest, and a study in human nature," it's "an unparalleled work in Hu’s formidable career and an epic of the highest order, characterized by breathtaking action choreography, stunning widescreen landscapes, and innovative editing." I confess I found it a little overwhelming and numbing. But not in the way of many Chinese historical films weighted down by epic battles. The final sequence is appealingly strange and unexpected and, as martial arts films go, rather quiet. It has to be seen, when you've got three hours to spare. The extra length has the advantage of allowing more to be included, so it becomes less easily classifiable. I don't find King Hu regular Shih Jun particularly charismatic here, as the initial main character Ku Shen Chai an unmotivated "artist" (and professional calligrapher) in his early thirties who still lives with his (disapproving and despairing) mother - she thinks he's too unambitious ever to amount to anything -- who is shaken out of his complacency by the arrival of a beautiful and mysterious princess, Yang Hui-ching (Feng Hsu), who is on the run from an evil general who has murdered her whole family. This man, Ou-Yang Nin (Tien Peng), will only appeal at the end.

ATouch of Zen opened April 22 at Film Forum in New York; limited showings follow in May, June, July and August in other cities.

This film may feel too long, but it also felt to me thoroughly up-to-date. And, despite it's being cited as a pervasive influence on films related to the genre, it also still feels distinctively original.

DRAGON INN (1967)

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Dragon Inn, like A Touch of Zen in a 4K restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute and L’Immagine Ritrovata of Bologna from the 35 mm original camera negative, is being released by Janus Films and issued in Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD discs. It officially opens in New York on Friday, May 6th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and in Los Angeles at the Landmark Nuart Theatre, with national rollout to follow; actually it will also open May 6 at Berkeley, San Francisco, and Philadelphia theaters. See Janus Films' Facebook page.

This earlier effort, while splendid and beautiful to look at, lacks the range and complexity of A Touch of Zen. In his review of a recent offshoot, Tsui Hark 's 2011 Flying Swords of Dragon Gate,Derek Elley of Film Business Asia explains the background: "China, Ming dynasty, AD 1477. Under the weak rule of Emperor Xian Zong, court eunuchs effectively control the country at all levels, not least through the feared imperial secret police departments, the Eastern Bureau and Western Bureau, which have power over all civil and military activities." An Eastern Bureau comes to Dragon River to weed out alleged enemies. The standout good guy is Minister of Defence Yu, who the head eunuch accuses of corruption. The people we're rooting for are those who side with Yu.

It's like the story of a police state; but don't look for political allegory about political corruption or totalitarianism. These are mainly just evil guys and good guys who are going to stab each other. After a while in Dragon Inn a room of the inn becomes like a hospital - one of the more interesting moments, since in this kind of film the effects of sword fighting are rarely treated realistically. You get stabbed, bang, you die; but in real life you don't instantly die of a knife in the stomach; it takes time. Here we see people in different states of disrepair.

The most scenic and pretty images are in sequences that take place out of doors in bright sunlight. But a lot of the action consists of fighting between opposing forces in the titular inn. There are concealed identities, and two memorable scenes involve poisoned wine. We can see the inspiration for Tarantino's recent The Hateful Eight. And maybe itself Dragon Innshows Italian influence. But too much of tie time this just seems like one fight after another. There are moments of sympathy, such as for a couple of young Tartars who tell a sad tale, and a sister who is a better fighter than her irascible brother, the same thing is true as Derek Elley says of Tsui Hark's recent film: there are too few characters of any depth or interest, despite a good cast, some of whom are seen also in A Touch of Zen. The restored Cinemascope looks great. Both films have powerful finales that hold you in their thrall no matter how silly you may think they are.

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