No film in Chinese cinema has brought beauty and style to the wuxia genre quite like King Hu's A Touch of Zen, which still exudes a magic that not even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can surpass.
The film, adapted from a short story in 18th-century writer Pu Songling's supernatural classic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai Zhiyi), tells of a scholar who helps the daughter of a righteous Ming dynasty minister and her small band of loyal knights to fend off evil eunuchs.
The plot is straightforward, and the sword-wielding characters, lacking individual personalities, border on one-dimensional. Yet the story is the least of Hu's concerns. 'If the plots become involved, one will have to spend more time on explanation and accountability, and less time on delivery and expression of style,' he once famously said. So what grips your interest is Hu's unique narrative style, developed from the director's strong interest in montage, Peking opera movements and traditional Chinese aesthetics.
There is the classic swordplay scene in which the knight lady (played by Hsu Feng), leaps towards the treetop with the help of her sidekick and then takes a dive to deliver a deadly strike. This is perhaps the first fight-and-flight action choreography in Chinese cinema, and Hu - adhering to the Chinese aesthetic of concealment - employed fast cutting to create an impression of superhuman speed and agility.
This is the beautiful moment when the martial arts genre took off and changed gear, departing from the bone-crunching feats of old Wong Fei-hung movies to the kind of poetic action made famous by the best work of Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-ping in the 1980s and 90s.
The production of Zen came after Hu's success with wuxia flicks including Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967). The latter, also a martial arts classic, broke box office records in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Armed with a glowing reputation, Hu took his time to create his magnum opus: the filming of Zen began in 1968 and didn't finish until almost three years later. Hu's meticulous approach to details - it was rumoured he would wait for a week just to get the perfect shot of a cloud passing a mountain top - apparently annoyed his financial backer, Union Film Company in Taiwan, and that had disastrous consequences for Hu.
'Many producers never made another picture with him after one experience because he was too slow,' said veteran film publicist Wun Linwen, as quoted in Remembering King Hu, a special feature produced for the 22nd Hong Kong International Film Festival to commemorate Hu in 1998. Raymond Chow, film producer of Golden Harvest, added in the same feature that at one point production came to a halt because of lack of money and he was installed as a mediator between Hu and the Union bosses. 'As production stopped, some crew members, particularly the martial arts directors, went to work on other films where they incorporated some of Hu's ideas,' Chow said. 'Hu was angry but could do nothing.'
When completed in 1971, the film was released in two parts in Taiwan. But for its release in Hong Kong, theatre owners decided to take things into their own hands and cut the film into one instalment, and the butchered version greatly dismayed the director.
Convinced that there would be a foreign market for the film, Hu and several friends took over the foreign rights and he put together a re-edited version with Ann Hui On-wah, then a fresh graduate running errands at Hu's office, helping out with checking the English subtitles.
The rest is history: Zen, when screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, won the Technical Grand Prize award, becoming the first Chinese film to win significant critical acclaim on the international film circuit.
A Touch of Zen, Jan 15, 7pm, and Feb 27, 2pm, as part of the programme celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong Film Archive