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A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 25 January 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: King Hu

Writers: King Hu, Sung-ling Pu

Cast: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Ying Bai

Taiwan 1971

200 mins

This sumptuous wuxia classic continues to thrill and enchant.

Somewhere in Ming dynasty China, Gu (Shih Jun) is a sign writer and scroll painter, living with his mum in his 30s and unattached, an embarrassment to her for his lack of ambition. He won’t take the exams that would enhance his status, he hasn’t married, and is far too content to spend his life with ink and paper for her liking. He isn’t lacking for curiosity, though, and observes the arrival of strangers in town closely. Members of the Eastern Group secret police force are turning up in increasing numbers, there’s a blind fortune teller (Ying Bai), and, more alluringly, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), who has moved, late at night, into the creepy house/fort next door. Getting in over his head Gu finds that the latter two are fugitives; he’s a general, named Shi, she’s a warrior whose father has been slain by a corrupt official who has the same fate in mind for her and the rest of her bloodline. Gu is seduced by Yang, by her story, and by the chance to apply the military knowledge he has been acquiring his entire life. But this is not ink and paper, and as the fights, melees and all-out battles ensue, a lot of very real blood is going to be shed.

A classic of the genre, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1970) added an undeniable touch of class to the martial arts movie. It’s long, at an epic 200 minutes, it’s in Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese of the standard Hong Kong chop socky flick, and, whilst fully delivering on wild action, also serves up a fair amount of philosophy and contemplation, ultimately ending up in a decidedly trippy vision of Buddhist salvation that would go down like a lead balloon at a Sonny Chiba all-nighter. Moreover, A Touch of Zen largely eschews the formulaic vengeance dynamics that largely dominates the genre. Its bookish hero fails entirely to undergo training by a master and transform into a death-dealing warrior in order to take out the chief bad guy in the last reel. Instead he is taken on a far less familiar arc, left literally holding the baby as his battles are fought for him, largely disappearing in the third act. This hurts the film a little, because Shih Jun’s Gu is an immensely likeable and engaging character, a 14th-century proto-geek. There’s something child-like about him, dreamy and detached, and overtaken by his enthusiasms. His loss of innocence when confronted by the actual corpses that all of his invention has led to is genuinely distressing. Miss Yang also surprises, less for being so damn kick-ass with a sword or throwing weapon, which must have been unusual in 1970, if less so now, but for her no-nonsense attitude about what she wants and what she’s prepared to do. We can glean her inner turmoil from her furrowed brow, and we understand from the tragic past story what has happened to make her this way, but in her onscreen time she is taciturn and self-contained and, in Hollywood terms, bracingly unsentimental or sympathetic, in a manner that would still be refreshing and novel in modern cinema.

There’s a distinct change of tone for the last act, in a fashion familiar to fans of Eastern cinema. The mystery story with spooky overtones that dominated the narrative gives way to a series of running skirmishes against a new Eastern Group enforcer. Yang and General Shi come to the fore, and are in turn sidelined when the abbot of the monastery to which they are fleeing (Roy Chiao) takes the stage. That the film is not totally derailed by all this gear crunching is mainly down to King Hu’s film-making suss. A Touch of Zen is, if nothing else, an extraordinary piece of visual storytelling. It’s fascinating to see how Leone’s Westerns, themselves inspired by Kurosawa’s samurai films have been absorbed into this Taiwanese concoction’s stylistic bones, but A Touch of Zen is more mystical and multifarious than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and has its eyes on more than gold. The film sets its scene with images of spider webs, moves on to countryside scenes, and shows us around the abandoned fort, with not a single human figure in sight for the first five minutes. Large sections are wordless, where composition, choreography and Wu Dajiang’s impressively expressive score combine to create a fluid whole. It’s about faces and figures moving in and out of shadow, beams of light cutting through smoke, and landscape after landscape. Hu’s restless camera doesn’t merely observe, it aims to bedazzle and concuss and terrify, summoning different moods and atmospheres depending on the demands of the story, progressing through dust and rock and rain through to the final reel’s colour negative and lens flare delirium. It’s a hell of a journey, taking us from, if not Loachian realism, then at least a recognizable domestic world, through increasing levels of stylised bonkers-ness to end up in the ballpark of spiritual transcendence. The latter fight scenes are of the typically gravity-defying, physics-denying kind, which would later be found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its ilk. Wang and Shi leap from forest floor to treetop and treetop to bad guy, dodging daggers along the way, each scene as delineated by setting and style as the musical numbers in a Gene Kelly flick. It’s fucking cinema, baby, and if you don’t get a jolt of sheer delight from such exuberant nonsense then I pity you.

For all that, it’s not flawless. The tonal shifts are jarring in places, the Scooby gang business of the haunted fort sits uneasily in the same film as the darker past, with its betrayal, torture and murder. And the third act feels like a sequel, of sorts, to the tale we have become invested in. It’s energetic and enthralling stuff, but sidelines characters we know to focus on, the Abbot, who’s pretty much the concept of Deus Ex Machina in person, stepping in to wrap things up where Gu, Wang and Shi have failed. These are quibbles; A Touch of Zen’s status as a classic is thoroughly deserved, it’s a wonderful thing, and looks and sounds fantastic in this Masters of Cinema restoration.
Bonuses include a booklet (including a vintage interview, Hu’s notes on the film from the Cannes 75 press kit, and the original short story that inspired the film), a documentary on King Hu’s cursed and blessed career and a great video essay on the film by David Cairns.

Mark Stafford

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Double Take: The Raid 2

The Raid 2
The Raid 2

Format: Cinema

Dates: 11 April 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Gareth Evans

Writer: Gareth Evans

Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra, Julie Estelle

Indonesia, USA 2014

150 mins

Virginie Sélavy and Sean Hogan share their views on the eagerly awaited sequel to The Raid – the 2012 Indonesian action stunner, written and directed by Welsh-born Gareth Evans.


The Raid took everybody by surprise in 2012: a lean and mean, hyper-kinetic, brutal Indonesian martial arts film shot by a Welshman, this unlikely proposition giddily renewed the genre and showed tired Asia and stale Hollywood how it was done. The Raid 2 ups the ante still, not just in relation to the first film, but to action film generally. A prodigious amount of energy has gone into devising super-dynamic, brilliantly inventive fight scenes, choreographed to exhilarating perfection and expertly filmed, with Gareth Evans able to handle elegant wide angles and tightly confined spaces with the same dexterity. The film is one seriously jaw-dropping, breath-taking, gasp-inducing set-piece after another: the toilet cubicle melee, the mud brawl, the car chase to top all car chases, the savage kitchen fight where anything goes, with side distractions courtesy of hired assassins Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man (the latter recalling the enigmatic assailant in Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent). The violence is not only superbly imaginative but full of humorous touches too: Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man in particular have assassination scenes that are as funny as they are vicious, involving claw hammers and a baseball as weapons respectively.

This second helping of 100&#37 freshly squeezed action is, however, slightly adulterated by its narrative ambitions. Where the plot of The Raid was threadbare and fiercely functional, its follow-up attempts to develop a grand crime saga with colourful rival gangs fighting over control of the city, a deadly father-son conflict, and a taciturn hero caught in a hopeless situation (Iko Uwais reprising his role and taking up where the first film left off). Melancholy assassin Prakoso adds to the misguided and tepid efforts at tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, his fate underlined by a particularly distracting use of Handel’s ‘Saraband’. (He is played by Yayan Ruhian, who was terrific as Mad Dog in the previous film, but whose talents are sadly not best used here.)

These, however, are minor gripes, simply because the action is what truly matters here – and what action! Admittedly the radical economy of The Raid had a ruthless perfection that is missing here, but this is not a film that you choose to watch for its story. Despite its flaws, it is impossible not to enjoy this new furious assault on the senses. The whole 150 minutes are a full-on riot of orgiastic violence and preposterous fun: you will be grinning all the way home. Virginie Sélavy


Proof that you can have entirely too much of a good thing, Gareth Evans’s The Raid 2 stands as a curious artefact of what happens when indie filmmaking meets the modern franchise mentality. For whilst feted by grassroots genre audiences as a gritty, no-holds-barred alternative to Hollywood CGI action pablum, The Raid 2 actually bears all the hallmarks of any committee-made studio sequel you’d care to mention: the wearying insistence that bigger equals better; a paper-thin how-can-the-same-shit-happen-to-the-same-guy-twice narrative (along with the obligatory insistence that this is now going to be a trilogy and was always intended as one, honest); and a general unwillingness to realise when one has outstayed one’s welcome.

Opening a short time after the climax of The Raid, the sequel picks up hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) as he agrees to go undercover in a bid to bring down the criminal power structure of the city. The plan requires him to be declared dead, just another faceless victim of the events of the previous film. So leaving his pregnant wife, off Rama goes to prison for two years in a bid to bolster the underworld cred of his new identity, before coming out and immediately infiltrating his way to the heart of the criminal organisation.

What hurts The Raid 2 is not so much this sort of by-the-numbers plotting – The Raid was similarly slight on story – but its pretensions towards being some sort of The Godfather-with-roundhouse-kicks crime epic. Whereas The Raid understood that its slender narrative was merely the means by which it got from Kickass Setpiece A to Kickass Setpiece B, and thus wasted as little time on it as necessary, the sequel deludes itself into thinking that audiences are keen to learn more about its sprawling cast of cut-out characters, rather than simply wanting to watch them kick seven shades of shit out of each other at the earliest given opportunity.

Thus we have such digressions as the return of Yayan Ruhian (antagonist Mad Dog in the first Raid), this time around playing a contract assassin who unwittingly gets caught up in the creaking gears of the plot. We first witness him taking out a gang of hoods who have absolutely nothing to do with the story, then are forced to sit through an interminable dinner scene with him and his ex-wife (the curse of backstory strikes again), before the film finally remembers what it’s good at and throws him into an epic nightclub brawl. But as the fight nears its tragic climax (complete with Handel on the soundtrack for added pathos), you’re forced to consider that all of this has been in the service of a character who’s nothing more than a plot device, and that no amount of hamfisted scripting can make him anything more than that. It’s at times like these that The Raid 2 resembles a rambling old codger reminiscing in the pub, forever talking in circles and never getting to the payoff.

Nevertheless, whilst the film’s timing of punchlines may be slipshod, it is of course the punches that people have really paid to see. And in this regard The Raid 2 definitely justifies the hype, more than surpassing the action beats of the original. Several moments – a combination car chase/fight, a climactic faceoff in a restaurant kitchen – drew admiring applause from the audience, Evans’s grasp of his craft truly demonstrating just how turgid and lazy most modern action movies are. The choreography and stunt work are stunning, often jaw-dropping (one suspects the reason Hollywood doesn’t make films like this is partly because modern health and safety standards preclude it), and these set pieces are certainly enough to recommend The Raid 2 in and of themselves.

It’s just a shame that the film surrounding them is so flabby and shapeless, really only kicking fully into life in the second half. Gareth Evans may very well be the Second Coming of action films, but even Jesus needed a hand occasionally. And The Raid 2 would certainly have benefited from the input of another writer and editor. If (as seems likely) Evans parlays the success of these films into a US directing career, the fervent wish of his hardcore support seems to be that he might bring some much-needed balls to the complacency of modern corporate Hollywood. Fair enough. But what the Hollywood studio system always stood for was discipline and the art of delegation, and The Raid 2 serves as notice of the fact that there are lessons to be learned there for indie filmmakers too. Sean Hogan

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