Saturday, July 16, 2016

King Hu's restored "Dragon Inn" & "Touch of Zen" at SIFF Cinema: Jul 22 - 24

This month SIFF Cinema brings some of the finest in genre cinema to the big screen with restorations of legendary Chinese director King Hu's expressively mystical, atmospheric, physical martial arts masterpieces. More referenced and revered than seen, these seminal works have influence countless Wuxia films in the ensuing decades since their release, most notably Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers". In the west there are of course the works of Quentin Tarantino, who has copped from them (and Toshiya Fujita's "Lady Snowblood" also playing this month at Grand Illusion Cinema) generously, lifting sequences and setting wholesale. The arthouse isn't immune to his spell, with a new generation of filmmakers from Hong Kong and mainland China offering reflections on Hu's legacy, as literally seen in Taiwanese Second Wave director Tsai Ming-Liang's elegiac ode to moviegoing and the city of Taipei, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn". Befitting a body of work of this influence and stature, and in a rare move for genre works Senses of Cinema have dedicated a Great Directors feature on Hu's warping and reformatting of the three tenets of 20th Century Wuxia cinema: the political world of the Jianghu, bewildering martial arts action, and thirdly, and most artfully in Hu's case, abstraction in representing Buddhist concepts. Janus Films and Criterion have produced new 4k restorations in a domestic theatrical run that will be the first opportunity to see these films in the west for most filmgoers, particularly in the case of "A Touch of Zen". Celebrated upon it's release as the first non-mainland Chinese film to receive the Technical Grand Prize and nomination for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Hu's epic emerged as an exemplary representation of the genre-form much in the same way that Sergio Leone’s stylized reimagining of pioneer America once brought critical attention to the Italian Western. While we can now see his work against a very necessary and relevant context, via the wider distribution and availability of mid-Century Wuxia film, there can be no denial of Hu’s preeminence as a "Martial-arts Pioneer Who Brought Dynamic Grace to the Genre", and "A Touch of Zen"'s broader achievement and status as a masterpiece of world cinema.

As well as containing references to the totality of Hu Jinquan's past and future films, Tony Williams details for Senses of Cinema, how it is that this work operates as a singular compilation of Eastern and Western stylistic features familiar to contemporary audiences. In Hu's more sparing use of the obligatory Shaw Brothers Studio gestures, reigning in choker close-ups and zoom lenses, he instead accentuated slow motion shots of nature and landscape. These were often set against tightly framed indoor scenes of persona drama, tension and comedy from Hu's own repertory company of familiar faces such as his onscreen avatar Shih Chun, the captivating Hsu Feng, Bai Ying, Han Hsieh, and Tsao Chien. The action playing out in whirlwind set pieces on isolated mountaintop roads and bamboo forest swordfights, delivered with visually beautiful compositions reminiscent of the director's passion for the theatre arts. The Beijing Opera-style musical introductions to Eastern Group representatives in "Dragon Inn" that punctuate each appearance of Bai Ying’s villainous albino eunuch are an obvious point of reference in this technical bridging of the stage and the screen. The more overtly poetic elements in Hu's films are glimpsed in the intermingling of slow-motion depiction of high-flying martial arts choreography, which cut to shots of nature; the movement of reeds, water and trees suggestive of the combat moving into the realm of the supernatural. These gestures would come to characterize the director's later work, becoming more and more explicit as Hu began to emerge as a "Martial-arts Filmmaking Master, Bending Light and Arrows to His Will". As is the case made in Grady Hendrix's Kaiju Shakedown column for Film Comment focusing on the late, lost film "The Battle of Ono", the shift to the supernatural plane is what most defines the closing passages of "A Touch of Zen's Masterful Concoction of Cinematic Flavors". In it's climax, where any fixed interpretation proves elusive, we see the mythic destination of the Buddhist monastery vanish, and it's luminescent, golden background remain. Hu seeming to suggest that in continuing one's quest to find refuge, whether from the intrigues and deceptions of the Ming Dynasty, or the turbulent political climate of the China of his time, one is on the path of a life-spanning journey, punctuated by fleeting glimpses of the distant horizons of transcendence.