A Touch of Zen is one of the first truly great chinese martial arts films. A wuxia, which means a sort of heroic tale of chivalry. Swordplay movie for short. Directed by King Hu, this movie has been canonized by countless film scholars as a groundbreaking film and it was made in an era in which chinese filmmaking was considered lesser artistically.
I recently bought Eurekas bluray version. Up until now I had only seen this movie on a shitty Optimum Asia dvd with poor picture and sound. But now that I got to see it in a new fresh print with correct aspect ratio, I can only say; Wow! This is a breathtaking piece of art. Not only because of its stunning cinemtaography and use of atmosphere and mood. But the narrative and how it is told is beautifully done.
The story starts off off small, opens up and blossom like a flower throughoput the film in a beautiful way. The plot itself consists of the usual political intrigue one would associate with periodical chinese martial arts pictures. But director King Hu paces it beautifully, framing it as a story around a humble scholar living in a rural village and how he becomes mixed up in a larger national plot , and how he finds a part to play in it.
Visually it even starts out small, with a fly stuck in a spider web, indicating the central character is part of a larger web. Stuck in a world he has chosen to not be a part of, but ends up in it anyways.
Great, poetic opening to the film. Then we see the web engulfed in mist:
And cut to morning:
|Revealing the rural landscape|
There are several beautiful vistas established, indicating the story takes place in a desolate location, far from teh capital, where all the political intrigue ,that later on will enter this world,stems from
The village is untroduced a a series of moody shots with mist, creating a sense of isolation and mystery
A lot of mood is introduced before our main protagonist Mr Gu is introduced. A humble man who likes to draw portraits of people. A scholar not interested in the world surrounding this isolated village. but he is soon to be mixed up in a larger narrative.
I love this opening, and the first hour you get to follow his perspective and how this plot develops. It is a violent action film through the eyes of a scholar, a man of peace.
What I would like to do in this text is to establish the influences and the dialogue between Japanese and chinese cinema through this particular film. My overall point is stylistic influences from Japan, but also a mix between the two whn it comes to staging fight sequences.
First, let us look atv motion. Here is how Kurosawa creates motion in Seven Samurai:
Using a telescopic lens, the foreground with the grass, swishes and contributes with the lack of depth to create a higher sense of speed and motion than it would have had without the use of the foreground with a particular lense like this.
Look at how King Hu stages motion in a scene, a battle in a forest:. he uses the bamboo forest brilliantly with the mist contrasting the trees to really make them stand out. In a similar style he creates a sense of speed through movement, although it might be hard to tell from these particular images.
I am not sure this comes across very well, through still images, but the bamboo trees enforce the movement in a way that would not have been as visually striking if she had run unto a plain. It is not as blurry as the Kurosawa film, which could be attributed to the poor dvd copy of Seven Samurai.
Kurosawas use of movement in that example is highly dependant of a particular rhytmic editing pattern and is also a very short sequence in which the samurai rush to the rescue. Unlike this scene, which is an entire action sequence. But the use of mise-en-scene to develop speed I think is important to emphasize. And the influence of Kurosawa I think can be noticed here, even though the sequences and the purposes are different.
I also like to compare the two different editions I own, and why this is such a marvellous improvement
It is certainly richer,more sumptuous, with the beautiful shot of two warriors in the background, shrouded in fog battling. I am not sure you can tell from these screen shots though. Trust me, it is poetic.
The fights are built using analytical and constructive editing in tandem*(see appendix). The fights usually have a master shot, to establish the scene then cut to medium shot, but in between when there my be supernatural feats to be performed, it is created through constructive editing. Nobody can fly for real, so usage of trampolines are used together with close ups to stitch together the illusion of flying. A primitive mode by todays standards. but is effective here.
The fights seem to work as a combination of the staccato pattern of chambara films and at the same time contain the particular brand of chinese fighting, with longer takes and a larger emphasis of exchange of blows than singular strikes. Both the start/stop and build up/release pattern of a samurai fight exists along the balletic movements of chinese fighting.
What I like to point out about this dialogic exchange between japanese and chinese culture is that this movie was made in an era when Japanese Cinema was considered much more developed than the chinese in Hong Kong. Chinese production companies often hired janpanese filmmakers to make sure their products got better. And so the influence of japanese culture on the development of chinese cinema is one way to approach this movie. King Hus more japanese approachh could be an indicator for chinese filmmakers to try to elevate chinese filmmaking by using japanese standards as they were thought of as more artistic than chinese. Bruce Lee certainly thoughts so. His fights were entirely constructed through the staccato pattern. But later the chinese developed a style through the creative filmmakers like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping that would create a "Wow-factor" that no film industry in the world could compare themselves to, through sensational use of spectacular bodily movement through balletic motions, more akin to the visual spectacle from the silent cinema than through narrative driven conventions of the modern day. And through taht delvier a cinematic experince that was dynamic and unique. And still to this day can be felt.
*analytical editing is the mode of how to clearly visually communicate the space between characters and their positions to an audience. Usually in classical Hollywood cinema a scene opens with an establishing shot. For instance, if you are in Paris we establish the environment by an establishing shot of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower. in centre frame. Then cut to an indoors master shot to clearly show where the characters in the scene geographically belong to one another. . .
*constructive editing relies on the audince being able to geographically tell what is going on without a master shot or establishing shot. Constructing a geography through editing without the use of a big master shot. Insert shots are also a way of constructive editing, something that a lot of HOng Kong action cinema relies on, for visual impact, like a close up of a foot hitting a face. Constructive editing is in Hong kong action cinema used for visual impact, to enhance a sequence.
Also look at the openingsequence of Shaun of The Dead for a great use of constructive editing in a comedic way. No master shot is used, and the space between characters are purposefully hidden to be comically revealed to the audience.