Chinese film director King Hu made three "wuxia" (or the adventures of Chinese swordsmen/martial artists) movies that became very influential in the making of future wuxia movies. They are "Come Drink With Me", "Dragon Gate Inn" and "A Touch of Zen". I think Ang Lee said that his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took a lot of inspiration from King Hu's films. The famous bamboo swordfight obviously pays homage to the one in A Touch of Zen.
It was very difficult to find and pricey to buy King Hu's films despite their huge stature in Chinese cinema, so I have never been exposed to any of his works until now. Below are my thoughts about his revered masterpieces.
Dragon Gate Inn (1967)
Dragon Gate Inn is probably his most famous work with Chinese mass audiences, popular enough to inspire two remakes, the latest one released just last year, directed by Tsui Hark. It has a very classic tale of good guys and bad guys gathering in a remote location (the titular inn), biding their time and trying not to get killed while waiting for their "target" to appear. And when said target finally does, hell will break loose in its entirety in Dragon Gate Inn.
The movie may be one of the classics and pioneers, but far better wuxia films have already been made since. The storyline is a lot more simplistic than I expected. The characters are the usual wuxia archetypes: the heroic swordsman in white, the woman warrior disguised as a man, her hot tempered brother, the innkeeper with a past, the evil eunuch kungfu master and his ever loyal right hand man. These characters are never explored further than their basic functions in the plot. For example, it is taken as a given that they must risk lives and limbs to protect the family of a wrongfully accused man, even though they hardly knew the guy, because, you know, they're the good guys. You can find more characterisation in the "inferior" 1992 remake, which stars Maggie Cheung (Hero), Tony Leung Ka-Fai (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), Brigitte Lin (Swordsman II), Lawrence Ng (Sex and Zen), and Hung Yan-yan (Once Upon A Time in China III), with Donnie Yen (Ip Man) playing the evil eunuch. (Holy crap!)
The biggest surprise was to find wall-to-wall non-stop action in this oldie, especially in the last hour. I love that King Hu's swordsmen fighting style is more Japanese samurai than the dance-like kungfu we're more accustomed to. King Hu's style was refreshing and imaginative in Come Drink With Me, but here it feels a tad too hack-and-slash repetitive. All the best scenes in the movie happen inside the inn, with people sneaking around candlelit rooms, flinging daggers, hatching plans, and poisoning drinks.
Come Drink With Me (1966)
Personally, this is King Hu's best. The characters in this one are still pretty flat, except for one, the titular "drunken swordsman" (the literal translation of the Chinese title). Haunted, conflicted, cunning, wise, honourable, there's some meat on these bones. Cheng Pei Pei, who was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon plays the pretend male swordsman, Golden Swallow, who is tasked to locate and rescue the kidnapped son of a government official. On the way, she bumps into helpful village drunk Fan Da-Pei, who harbours a secret past.
All the King Hu trademarks are here: corrupt villains, samurai action, girl in disguise, and yes, there's an inn too! There are some marked differences compared to Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen. Arguably, the story here is more intriguing, as it slowly unravels the motivations and backstories of some of the characters. The characters are better: Cheng Pei Pei has a standout screen presence and beauty that transcended her rote role unlike the female leads in the other two movies. The effeminate and vicious Jade Faced Tiger (played by TV veteran Chan Hung-lit) is probably the most memorable and scene-stealing King Hu villain. And the action sequences are more meticulously thought out and executed. I like that the kungfu here is more "mystical," where kungfu masters can stop waterfalls with their "qigong" or "life energy".
(Interesting tidbit: Yueh Hua (the drunken swordsman) and Chan Hung-lit became prolific TV actors later in life, even facing off each other once again in hit series "The Gem of Life". Sadly, Chan passed away suddenly and too soon in 2009, at the age of 66.)
I enjoyed it so much that I've watched it numerous times, and it was the impetus in my quest to find and watch King Hu's other films. Which finally brings us to...
A Touch of Zen (1971)
The first Chinese action movie to win a Cannes Film Festival award, lauded by filmmakers, studied by scholars, loved by... none? For a film of such stature, you would expect at least a Criterion Collection DVD. I couldn't even find the VCD edition. Someone was selling the out-of-print DVD on Amazon.com in the vicinity of USD$40, which was pricey even for a Criterion Blu-ray. I would expect someone prominent like Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou, who obviously respected King Hu's work, to champion the restoration of his most famous masterpiece.
I bring out this point because, had King Hu shot his movie entirely in daylight, the substandard DVD quality would have sufficed. But there is one long action sequence shot at night and in the dark that is nearly unwatchable because the video was too murky and dark. It definitely ruins the movie because the sequence involves a pivotal showdown among key characters. You may wish to wait for a remastered Blu-ray edition, but it may take a while, or possibly never.
|Screencap of A Touch of Zen night action sequence. You can clearly see three Chinese swordsmen fighting each other.
Still, A Touch of Zen is not your usual "wuxia pian". Imagine the "2001 A.D.: A Space Odyssey" of wuxia pian, or a wuxia pian directed by David Lynch. I believe King Hu is trying to create a more artistic and abstract form of wuxia pian. It begins from the point of view of lowly village scholar Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun, who also played the hero from Dragon Gate Inn), who gets entangled with fugitives on the run from - you guessed it - an evil, corrupt eunuch. Ku does not have a secret past, double life or even kungfu skills, so the first hour is just him poking his nose into the affairs of new arrivals in his village, and being constantly bugged by his mother to take the "government exam". It takes quite a while before the first fight scene arrives, and the action in this movie is more bloody massacre than graceful techniques. Later, the movie abandons Ku on the sidelines and takes a turn for the surreal, and concludes with an open-ended finale consisting of mindboggling Buddhist imagery. I guess its message is that vengeance is a never-ending cycle of violence that corrupts the soul, but admittedly I was actually hoping to see some kickass action.
Missing in action: An inn.
I can appreciate A Touch of Zen for showing the world that a kungfu movie can have artistry and become more than just mere crowdpleasing fares. It's definitely a unique movie worth watching once. But if you're expecting Come Drink With Me Part II, you'd be sorely disappointed. It's hard for me to recommend this movie other than as a required viewing for film students and movie aficionados. The unavailability of the VCDs/DVDs and substandard picture quality do not help either.
Dragon Gate Inn - Watch it if you're curious about how the "original" is like.
Come Drink With Me - Highly recommended for casual and serious movie lovers alike.
A Touch of Zen - Important landmark for serious movie freaks only.