Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Touch of Zen and the Art of the Wuxia Film

Wuxia.  In Chinese, the word Wu means Martial or Military.  Meanwhile the word Xia means Hero or Honour.  Put these words together and you get Wuxia, the traditional Chinese narrative genre of Martial Arts, or the Martial Hero if you will.  It is a genre, a style of storytelling that is highlighted by a chivalrous code not unlike that of the Japanese Samurai or the European Knights of legend and lore or the Western gunslinger in the proverbial white hat.  Though the term Wuxia may well be of more recent coinage, these tales have been in the Chinese tradition - in their books and plays and oral storytelling - for at least two thousand years.

This traditional style of adventure story of course translates perfectly into the more action-oriented, and more honourable-styled cinema of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  From the Golden Age of the early 1930's and 40's Shaw Brothers films to the new age of Wuxia seen in the 1960's and 70's films of King Hu to the modern day Wire-Fu equivalents like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers - even Kung Fu Panda if you insist - this tradition of martial arts, which includes super-stylized and super-acrobatic choreography as opposed to the more down-to-Earth, Fists of Fury stylings of Bruce Lee and his ilk, makes up the most spiritually and most artistically relevant element of the genre of martial arts cinema.  It is this tradition, this style, that is being celebrated in the inaugural edition of Foreign Chops, a new monthly feature that will recognize a different foreign film subject each time.  This monthly event is hosted by the fine folks over at the LAMB (Large Association of Movie Blogs for those not in the know).  So, without any more needless further ado, here is my contribution to the Wuxia party.

Originally released in 1970 and 71 in two parts before being unified into one great big creature (the whole bloody affair one might even say), the three plus hour Wuxia masterpiece A Touch of Zen by King Hu, may very well be one of the most underrated works of cinema in history - and this is not mere hyperbole, this is, sad to say, just sheer cinematic fact.  So many praise those more modern-day works that are so obviously influenced by Hu's now classic genre work (more on those in a bit) but so little do we hear about this Wuxia that arguably started it all.  From its opening shot to its epic finale, and encompassing its rapid-fire fight sequences that play like some sort of training manual for every martial arts film that came after it, and full of a melodic cinematography style that can only be described, no matter how cliché it may sound, as haunting, A Touch of Zen is a mesmerizing work of Wuxia that may very well be - and this too is not meant as mere hyperbole - the finest specimen of its species.  And I ain't just whistlin' The Girl from Dabancheng.

Taking a stronger spiritual bent than most Wuxia films, Hu gives us a hero that through inevitable and apparent death - he bleeds gold - becomes an enlightened soul, even alluding to the fact that he may even be Buddha himself.  Of course this spirituality does not mean we are left without the quite kick-ass, mythical battle scenes that come part and parcel with the quite enlightened genre.  Using the technique known as Qinggong, where fighters seem to have superhuman powers of agility and are able to leap bounds around everyone else, we are given these great and mythical battle scenes that would go on to inspire so many films of today's version of the Wuxia genre.   We can see more than mere nods to A Touch of Zen in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (the central battle in the bamboo forest is pretty much extracted from here into the latter) but still, so many have forgotten Hu's original in the face of the more modern extravagances of the Wire-Fu films.  We can even see the influence in Star Wars, where Asian films aficionado George Lucas uses the fighting style of Qinggong for his breed of Jedi warriors - but still so few remember poor King Hu and his Taiwanese masterpiece A Touch of Zen.

Another obvious influenced modern day director is, of course, Quentin Tarantino.  Yeah yeah, I know, one would be quite hard-pressed to name a movie that was not an influence on QT, but still, Hu's film, along with other works of Wuxia, are a major influence on the director's work - especially his Kill Bill films.  Tarantino was actually a big part of bringing the genre back to the forefront of cinephiliac circles (though not to the general populace) and you can see this in his fight sequences and the suave chop-socky style of editing that the late great Sally Menke brought to his films.  This Tarantino connection actually could come as no surprise since the director's films are the modern day equivalent of the Spaghetti Western genre, and one can easily see how A Touch of Zen is the Chinese answer to something like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and/or Once Upon a Time in the West.  See how everything seems to come full circle.  But I digress, as we are here to praise A Touch of Zen and the Art of the Wuxia Film.  In sum I would just like to say that the future is dark indeed that does not have the knowledge of A Touch of Zen in it - so go out and watch the damn thing already.  It is easily available on home video, so there is no good excuse to not do such a thing.


Chip Lary said...

I liked the intro. You've got some good information there and it is succinctly stated. I'm quite curious to see what people submit for this first foreign chops. I sent in the three "wire fu" movies you mentioned.

Yatsen Chan said...

A TOUCH OF ZEN now has a 4K remastered/restored version, available on blu ray/dvd though amazon.co..uk in January and later through CRITERION in the U.S.