A Touch of Zen (1971)

touchofzen_2A Touch of Zen [俠女] (1971)

Starring Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Tien Peng, Cho Kin, Miao Tian, Cheung Bing-Yuk, Sit Hon, Wang Shui, Roy Chiao Hung, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San, Sammo Hung

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High.

fourstar


A Touch of Zen starts off innocently enough, but by the end of the film the viewer has journeyed through religion, the soul and the more standard martial intrigue you were probably expecting. It is a martial arts film wholly unlike any I’ve ever seen, coming years ahead of its time and eschewing nearly all the general ideas of entertainment that martial arts films are usually built upon. A Touch of Zen is a wuxia film with higher aspirations. It is a fascinating, pure example of film as art, and like any good work of art, true understanding only comes with extended thought and multiple viewings. This is the type of film that people spend their whole lives in awe of; its power to provoke thought while also engaging the more primal needs is unique and unparalleled.

A Touch of Zen is partially based on the story The Gallant Girl (or The Magnanimous Girl) from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and it is here that the film draws its initial characters and setting. Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) is a scholar living in the derelict Ching Lu Fort. He studies not for wealth or status, but for personal gain and knowledge, much to the chagrin of his mother who thinks a man over 30 should be married and on his way to a lucrative career. Ku’s stall in the nearby town, where he paints portraits and does calligraphy, just doesn’t fit the bill in her eyes. So when a young woman and her elderly mother move into the nearby general’s mansion that has stood uninhabited for many years, Ku’s mother immediately thinks of joining the two families.

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Purple Darts (1969)

purpledarts_3Purple Darts [紫金鏢] (1969)

Starring Wang Ling, Tung Li, Ou Wei, Cho Kin, Li Kuan-Chang, Lee Fung, Cheung Sai-Sai, Chow Siu-Hing, Tai Leung, Cheung Ching-Fung

Directed by Pan Lei

Expectations: Fairly low.

threehalfstar


It’s a shame that Purple Darts is one of the Shaw Brothers films that never received a DVD release from Celestial, because it’s a great wuxia full of fun characters and tense fights. Its story isn’t always the slickest, the characters’ motivations are usually somewhat cloudy and unexplained, there are “important” things that ultimately mean nothing, and the choreography leaves a lot to be desired, but Purple Darts finds ways to make those discrepancies fly away like a slick wuxia hero. It’s by far the best film I’ve seen from Pan Lei, and I’m sad that his final martial arts film for the Shaw Brothers, 1971’s The Merciful Sword, is currently MIA. Maybe it’ll eventually turn up like Purple Darts.

Like many Shaw martial arts films from the 1960s, Purple Darts opens with an infant in peril. Her parents are under assault from four villainous figures of the martial world: Bai Feng the Butcher, Lu Dachao the Bull Demon, Gu Miaozhen the Seducer, and Wang Yizhou The Wind Waving Scholar. Together they seek the Great Mystery Scriptures, a kung fu manual with unexplained power and importance. The infant’s mother manages to smuggle her out through a hidden tunnel, and an old man takes the baby in. Cue the credits! And now, just as in a good majority of these ’60s wuxias, the credits end and the infant is now a 20-something adult in search of vengeance for the crimes against her parents!

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Dragon Inn (1967)

dragoninn_8Dragon Inn (1967)
AKA Dragon Gate Inn

Starring Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Tien Peng, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High, this is one of the most influential early martial arts films.

fourstar


When it comes to martial arts films, 1967 was a huge, formative year. The first mega-hit of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman, made Jimmy Wang Yu a star and cemented director Chang Cheh as the genre’s leading visionary. Just a few months after the release of that film, director King Hu, having recently left the Shaw Brothers after creative differences on Come Drink With Me, unleashed Dragon Inn. As an independent film out of Taiwan it may not have had the budget or the clout of the Shaw Brothers studio behind it, but Dragon Inn is arguably more well-known than almost all the 1960s martial arts films from the Shaw studio. I knew all this going into Dragon Inn, and even with an incredible amount of historical hype behind it, Dragon Inn wowed me with its cinematic artistry and an ahead-of-its-time ability to craft thrilling martial arts sequences through editing.

The story of Dragon Inn is a well-known one, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ability to enthrall. The government is corrupt and controlled by devious eunuchs, and our story begins as Zhao Shao Qin, a eunuch with unparalleled power, orders the execution of General Yu, a good man who was framed. Yu’s family is sent to the remote outpost of Dragon Gate, where Zhao has plans to murder them far from the watchful eyes of civilization. He sends a delegation of his most powerful soldiers to await the family’s arrival at the inn, but thankfully there’s a few people at Dragon Gate still loyal to General Yu and his resilient spirit.

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Shadow Girl (1971)

ShadowGirlShadow Girl [隱身女俠] (1971)

Starring Lily Li Li-Li, An Ping, Wai Wang, Yue Fung, Cho Kin, Ding Keung, Chui Fook-Sang, Miao Tian, Tin Man-Chung, O Yau-Man, Law Bun, Gam Tiu

Directed by San Kei

Expectations: Moderate.

twostar


I’ve seen a lot of varied Shaw Brothers films, but I never expected to see their version of an invisible man tale. But that’s just what Shadow Girl is… kinda. I don’t remember the Invisible Man’s mother flying around in a circle and poking out people’s eyes, but that’s where the term “creative license” comes in. The film actually isn’t a take-off on the classic H.G. Wells story, the invisibility here is merely the hook that makes the story unique and interesting. How does Yin Chu (Lily Li) turn invisible? Is it just her kung fu training that has enabled this ability, or is it something more?

I’m building it up more than necessary, though, because this isn’t presented as a mystery in the film. The characters that come into contact with Yin assume she’s a ghost, but we’re in on the gag right from the first scene, as we see Yin undressing on a river bank and slowly turning invisible before she ventures into the water. Later flashback scenes give us more detail on why she has this ability, and why she’s roaming around the countryside with no home, but it’d be a stretch to call these aspects mysterious.

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