Sunday, February 25, 2018

King Hu's "Legend of the Mountain" at Northwest Film Forum: Mar 1 - 4

Outside of the rare retrospective such as BAMcinématek's, "All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu", the genre film of Hu Jinquan remains largely unseen in the west. More referenced and revered than screened, 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 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 is 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, Senses of Cinema have dedicated a Great Directors feature on Hu's warping and reformatting of the three tenets of 20th Century Wuxia cinema. His reconfiguring of the genre shifted the focus between the political world of the Jianghu, bewildering martial arts action, and most artfully in the case of Hu's later films, a abstracted representation of Buddhist concepts. In a rare move for genre works, 2017 saw Janus Films and Criterion produce and distribute new 4k restorations of two of Hu's masterworks in a domestic theatrical run. For many, this was a first opportunity to see these films on the big screen. Particularly in the case of 1971's "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 much in the same way that Sergio Leone’s stylized reimagining 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.

Tony Williams details for Senses of Cinema, how it is that "A Touch of Zen", operates as a singular compilation of Eastern and Western stylistic features. In Hu's more sparing use of the obligatory Shaw Brothers Studio gestures, he instead accentuated shots of open vistas, great mountains, and the enveloping effect of the natural 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, framed by visually striking compositions reminiscent of the director's passion for the theatre arts. The more overtly poetic elements in Hu's films are often glimpsed in the intermingling of slow-motion high-flying martial arts choreography, shot through with interjections of natural splendor. The diffusion of light and protraction of time seen in these sequences, which then cut to images of nature;  movement of reeds, water, windswept mountains and trees, are suggestive of the combat moving into the realm of the supernatural. These gestures would come to characterize the director's later work beginning with "Dragon Inn" on, becoming more and more explicit as Hu emerged 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". It is here that "Legend of the Mountain" shares much with the the director's proceeding string of films. The protracted quest of this, "Magical Mystery Marathon in Ancient China" who's road traverses a mesmerizing assembly of panoramas, intersects with supernatural encounters, and eventually leads to a series swirling martial arts set pieces, culminates in a one-of-a-kind confrontation of spiritual (and sonic) warfare. In it's new 4k restoration Kino Lorber Repertory have brought this rare, and entrancing Wuxia in a string of domestic screenings, including a run at Northwest Film Forum.