The Aesthetic Majesty of King Hu: A Touch of Zen on Criterion
By Tony Williams.
As I write, hours tick away for the latest unimportant event in film history – the Hollywood Academy Awards which will have millions glued to their television sets totally unware both of its worthless significance and the nauseating spectacle of a meritless institution narcissistically patting itself on the back to award prizes to undeserving products. Although there are exceptions to every rule, the fact remains that virtually all of the nominated items will probably not exhibit any development to what cinema has achieved over the past century. We live in a time of regression, culturally, historically, and politically. There seems no reason to expect that tonight’s overrated fiasco will be any different. Within such circumstances, it is always a pleasure to have past achievements available to us, especially in newly restored versions. One example of merit is the recent Criterion DVD/Blu-ray version of King Hu’s great 1971 epic artistic achievement A Touch of Zen. Such a work shows Cinema at its highest achievement integrating all the allied influences into a magisterial achievement due to one key talent having the opportunity to do so at a particular historical time. If Robin Wood once said something on the lines of, “If you don’t like Marnie, then you don’t love cinema”, I will parallel that statement with “If you have not yet seen A Touch of Zen and loved its artistry, then you don’t love cinema”.
Thanks to the 1970s articles of Tony Rayns on Hong Kong Cinema, I first became aware of the film’s achievements and those of King Hu (Hu Jin-quan) at that particular pre-Hong Kong New Wave time. While living near London in 1974, I managed to see my first King Hu film, The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) at Portobello Road’s Electric Cinema Club. A year later I saw a beautiful print of A Touch of Zen at London’s Curzon Cinema, which sent me on a quest to see as many of his films as possible, whether on 35mm (especially 1967’s Dragon Inn and the rarely seen 1983 film All the King’s Men at the USC Film Archive), 16mm, VHS, and DVD formats. I have not yet seen The Juvenizer (1981), apparently his only contemporary period movie. Yet, in all their different manifestations, the films of King Hu breathe that rare combination of assured artistry and directorial control very rare in today’s cinema. Looking at what is regarded as his assured masterpiece, A Touch of Zen reveals to the viewer what true cinema is really about and how many supposed predecessors and succeeding competitors fall more than short of the mark. This is a great film, one that needed Criterion’s respectful treatment, and again, they fulfill their artistic goal.
Again, I will leave the DVD Beaver people to comment on this restoration that I find breathtaking as an amateur to concentrate again on the important role of supplements in this new technological era. Supplements can be redundant or helpful and Criterion’s versions often fall into the same positive categories as those of Olive Films, Eureka, and other companies who see their offerings as sources for further exploration. Though limited by running time, unlike books and articles they can supply important links and observations that the viewer can follow up on in terms of tracking previous influences and strategic developments utilized in each particular film. Criterion’s supplements perform this function perfectly, since this company supplies much more than extras for passive entertainment.
To show the company that I do appreciate good artistic design, I will cite the folding liner notes containing two very valuable introductory essays: David Bordwell’s “Prowling, Scheming, Flying: A Touch of Zen” and Hu’s edited 1975 Cannes Film Festival press kit notes. Written by one of America’s foremost scholars on Hong Kong Cinema, the first essay reflects the author’s usual lucid prose and informative style, which is very helpful to the beginner. Hu’s reflections both on the origins of the film and its attack on the “unsanitary influence” of the James Bond films via exposure of “some of the evil deeds of an organization such as the Eastern Depot” Ming Dynasty Secret Service concisely echo what interviewees on the supplement state. It is more than appropriate that these two essays have a suitable artistic design on the opposing side. Please keep this precedent up, Criterion!
The disc’s Special Edition Features offer important supplementary information. “The Reluctant Lead: Hsu Feng” contains a fourteen-minute interview with the leading actress who first appeared in the director’s Dragon Inn (1967). Now more well known as a producer, she emphasizes his influence on her acting career, learning from her fellow actors such as Bai Ying (who played the villainous eunuch in the previous film and was part of Hu’s stock company) who encouraged her to be involved in every aspect of the production, such as constructing the Jing Lu Fort and working on the lotus pond. This was a time when no specialists existed in Taiwan Cinema so Hu took on the roles of costume designer, dialogue director, artistic designer, and Ming Dynasty hair stylist. Having no martial arts skills when she appeared in Dragon Inn, Hsu attended morning classes with fellow actors conducted by Beijing Opera Northern style choreographer Han Jing-jie (who played the title role in Bruce Lee’s 1971 The Big Boss) and acting classes in the afternoon. She speaks fondly of her past mentor, “No one set the bar as high as he did” and regrets the fact that only foreign acclaim of the film made it a critical success in its home territory. Hu stimulated his actors to attempt 150% in their work but constantly urged them to achieve a little more if they succeeded in that goal, especially that crucial first take that always pleased him.
Veteran actor Shih Chun appears in the next interview segment appropriately titled “The Highest Standards” for which Hu always aimed. Over 30 when the director first discovered him working as a pharmacy research assistant, Shih mentions the influence of Ming Dynasty Art and History on Hu’s historical films with paintings from The National Palace Museum incorporated into costume design. Like Hsu Feng, Shih speaks of working with the director on all aspects of production such as make-up, costumes, set design, and lighting, highly appreciative of a talent who not only involved himself in everything but took time to shoot even allowing for grass to grow, wilt, and grow again the following year to achieve the maximum cinematic effect. A Touch of Zen took three years to make and anyone who sees the film should realize it was worth it and well as question later Hollywood establishment denigration of Michael Cimino’s equally meticulous approach during the making of Heaven’s Gate (1980). Shih concludes that none of the thirty or so directors he worked with afterwards ever matched the standards of Hu. He will later appear in a cameo role alongside his co-star from Dragon Inn in Tsai Ming-liang’s poignant homage Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003).
A 46-minute 2012 documentary on Hu follows, featuring many co-workers and experts on Hong Kong cinema such as historian Peggy Chiao, Shih Chun, Ming Pao editor Poo Yiu-ming, director and producer Chaplin Chang, and Yue Hua who played the drunken beggar in the director’s first fully realized Shaw Brothers film Come Drink with Me (1966). This documentary contains valuable background material not just on the director himself but also his formative influences and associations with Taiwan cinema and colleagues such as Li-Han-hsiang. As an exile from China in 1949, Hu initially worked as Mandarin dialogue director and editor in Hong Kong on Voice of America tapes that were sent back to Washington DC for broadcasts to the Mainland especially. He then moved to one of the early 1950s Hong Kong film companies Great Wall and began an association with fellow exile Li Han-hsiang working as a painter and art designer on the latter’s films. Both men shared a common interest in painting and calligraphy. Hu later began acting in films specializing in comic roles such as Li’s Rear Entrance (1960) and The Dancing Millionairess (1963) and appearing in Li’s The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) before talking on the role of associate director on his colleague’s Huang-mei acclaimed film Love Eterne (1963). Li later left Shaw Brothers to work in Taiwan, irritated at the company’s interference and poor pay thus setting a precedent for Hu a few years later after anger over interference on his own films Sons of The Good Earth (1965) and Come Drink with me (1966). One interesting item of information from this documentary is the fact that Shaw Brothers forced Hu to conclude the latter film abruptly which probably explains a long-enduring question I’ve had as to why there is no final battle between Cheng Pei-pei’s heroine, Golden Swallow, and the villainous Jade Faced Tiger.
In his 1997 Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, Stephen Teo commented that Hu’s reputation amongst Western critics in the 70s tended to eclipse most of his contemporaries and predecessors “who all deserve to be better known” (87). Hu and Li Han-hsiang shared similar interests in painting and set design but with the DVD era we are now in a better position to see these once little-known works of other directors and assess their relationship to the work of Hu. In the case of Li Han-hsiang Peggy Chao comments that a difference definitely existed between both these directors. They were artistically accomplished in shared artistic traditions but Hu was more stubborn and less accommodating than Li in terms of studio demands. Li saw films as entertainment while Hu regarded them as Art. Both Li and Hu were interested in Chinese scroll painting but the latter worked on a painterly p.o.v. “The audience is the camera. I don’t want the audience to sit and watch. I want it to move” (1). In several of his films, I see that the audience does move with the camera following the protagonists either in long shot or moving back as the heroines in Dragon Inn or The Fate of Lee Khan advance towards the camera. In the few Li Han- hsiang films I’ve seen the movement appears painterly according to the dimensions of a traditional Chinese scroll painting, but Hu’s movements develop the influence in a more cinematic manner. Peggy Chaio later points out that Li used his camera in the manner of cinematic “flow” associated with directors such as Minelli and Ophuls while Hu stressed the role of editing in creating impact in his films as well as having a unique narrative style and structure that made him regard any Hollywood influences irrelevant to his type of filmmaking. Here David Bordwell’s celebrated essay “Richness and Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse” in The Cinema of Hong Kong: Arts, History, Identity (Eds. Poshek Fu and David Desser, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and his later valuable explorations in Planet Hong Kong (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2000) can be profitably consulted in this particular area.
Chaplin Chang mentions that Hu’s interest in Ming Dynasty internal conflicts and its Eastern Group investigative networks provided certain parallels to contemporary China and Taiwan in terms of the treatment of dissidents in both regions. Hu influenced other directors such as Tsui Hark in his New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) and Ching Siu-Tung who also worked with Hark and appears in a small role in Come Drink with Me.
In a 13-minute interview Ang Lee acclaims Hu’s incredible calligraphy skills and research expertise, as lee points out the positive influence Hu had on a hitherto moribund Taiwan film industry as well as his bamboo forest scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) while pointing out the different aesthetic approach he took in that sequence from Hu’s precedent in A Touch of Zen. The last segment is a 33-minute interview with Tony Rayns who outlines Hu’s career, the influence of his source material for A Touch of Zen. Rayns concludes with recognizing the film for what it is – “the first art house martial arts film”. He also acclaims the director as the ultimate auteur since he did most of the work on the film himself so the credits are tokenist. Nobody else on his team knew anything about hair styles of the Ming Dynasty, so he worked on the hair devices himself as the well-known still of him tending Hsu Feng’s hair shows. Over the long duration of filming, nine months were devoted to constructing the abandoned fort while the bamboo forest scene lasted for some 18 days, A Touch of Zen gradually extends its frame of references throughout its duration ending with Buddhism proving to be the only force capable of defeating the Eastern Group’s earthly power and their James Bond version of Licensed to Kill that Hu detested.
I’d also add that the actor who plays the Buddhist Abbot (Roy Chaio) was actually a devout Christian while Hu himself was no Buddhist as Rayns notes but someone who just wanted to use a touch of Zen for his film. At the end of the film Hu affirms the transcendental power of Buddhism over any violent institutional system whether it be the declining Ming Dynasty, Mainland China, Kuomintang dominated Taiwan, and perhaps a materialist Hong Kong film industry dominated by the restrictive budget constraints of Run Run Shaw. A Touch of Zen is such a rich film in several ways as it unites many artistic forms in its construction to echo early film theorist Riccioto Canudo’s concept of cinema’s potential to become eventually a particular “symbolic aspect of velocity” cited by Josh Martin in his recent internet article.
Velocity possesses the potential for a great series of combinations, of interlocking activities, combining to create a spectacle that is a series of visions and images tied together in a vibrant agglomeration, similar to a living organism…No theater could offer half the changes of set and location provided by the Cinematograph with such vertiginous rapidity, even if equipped with the most extraordinarily modern machinery. (2)
Who cares if the wrong envelopes were opened during that mediocre event the other night? All the award winners reflect the same uniform impoverished state of cinema celebrated today by those denying all knowledge of past achievements. In many cases, it is often important to turn to the past for inspiration. But when current historical, political, and industrial factors prevent both the acknowledgement of the past as well as allowing for its creative development, the last resort is to turn to the heritage itself if only in the hope of better cinematic times. Hu’s A Touch of Zen is one such resort – a refuge from the banal cinema of the present and hope for a better tomorrow.
- Bai Ying quoted from a 1998 interview by Stephen Teo, “King Hu. Great Directors”, http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/hu/. I also recommend Stephen Teo, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen. Hong Kong University Press, 2006, for a detailed treatment of this film.
- Josh Martin, “Transcending the Limits: King Hu’s `New Wuxia Century’ and After.” http://www.aafilmfest.com/transcending-the-limits/. See also David Bordwell, http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2013/06/03/sometimes-a-jump-cut/.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and co-editor, with Esther Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), he is currently viewing French Film Noirs of the German Occupation.