Next week I will be going to China on my annual trip there and it is quite fitting that this next movie on the List is a Chinese movie. Well, technically it is Taiwanese, but it is supposed to take place in China.
“Hsia Nu” or “A Touch of Zen”, as it is called in English, is a wuxia movie of epic scale. Wuxia is that very popular “sword and magic” genre of movies that most westerners associate with Hong Kong. Think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. “Hsia Nu” is about 200 minutes long and released over a two-year period (in 70 and 71, though on the List it is listed as a 69 movie…) and clearly made with a budget to match.
In medieval times Gu Sheng-tsai (Shih Chun) earns his living by painting portraits and doing calligraphy. Clearly, he is a bookish fellow, but without much ambition, to his mother’s chagrin. This changes when a mysterious woman moves into the ruin next door. Gu is smitten, but the girl, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng) is not who she seems to be, nor are practically anybody else, and soon Gu is involved in a high stakes game against powerful members of the empirical court.
“Hsia Nu” is clearly one of the finest wuxia movies I have seen. That does not include that many examples, but of those I have seen this one stands out. What makes it special is the first hour or so. Instead of rushing into some crazy fighting, it starts out very quietly and mundane. It is quite realistic, and we get a proper introduction to the quiet life of Gu Sheng-tsai. He is as confused with the girl and the mysterious characters that begin to show up as we are and even the first fighting scenes are not at all over the top, merely a demonstration of the supreme fighting technique of Yang Hui-zhen. As the film progresses, we do of course get loads of that swordplay the wuxia genre of renown for. Whether you like this or not is a matter of taste. Personally, I find it a bit comical to have the fighters do giant jumps into a melee and, well, they do that quite a lot, but that is what wuxia is all about.
I found it fascinating how the story itself keeps developing. It takes focus to keep track of the characters, but I found the story much better developed than usual in wuxia movies. It helps that Gu is not some kind of mighty fighter but a fairly ordinary guy. That means that we, the audience, can relate to him and he becomes our presence in the movie. Unfortunately, more wants more, and me too, I was longing to learn more of Yang, General Shi and Abott Hui. There is a brief romantic scene between Gu and Yang but is so short that we know practically nothing of their relationship. Yang merely looks touch and stoic and that is almost all we learn about her. I cannot say if this is simply Chinese prudishness, but I could definitely see her opening up a bit more.
Towards the end it also seems as if the story gets sacrificed for the battle scenes or maybe it was just me getting tired. It felt like one, very long, continuous battle sequence and I lost some touch on what was going on. The problem with awesome fighters, as with superheroes, is that killing tons of henchmen eventually gets tiresome.
Still, I want to judge it by the superior first half of the movie and for that it is a definite must-see.