A couple of years ago, thanks to the El Rey network, I started trying to make an effort to start watching classic kung fu films. Old-school martial arts films were something I never really got into, and I realized it was something I needed to check out to start patching that gap in my film credentials. But apart from a few great ones (The Streetfighter prime among them), I found myself mostly bored by them; you can read longer thoughts here if you want, but the short version is just that they didn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t the films; it was just that there was little there that interested me.
And yet, with the re-opening of the great Belcourt theater in Nashville came the chance to see two films by famed director King Hu, whose Touch of Zen is often held up as not only one of the best martial arts films in the wuxia tradition, but one of the great films, period. And with it came Dragon Inn, an earlier work that’s no less beloved by many. And so, in the hopes that I’d find something more to my liking, I gave these a shot.
Oh, man, am I glad I did. Because while a lot of the traditional Shaw brothers movies may not do much for me, with their bad dubbing, goofy plots, and whatnot, I was floored by just about every moment of these two great pieces of filmmaking.
Let’s start with Dragon Inn. The plot is simple: the family of a disgraced lord is making their way to exile, pursued by the regime’s soldiers, who want them dead. At an inn near the Dragon Gate, the soldiers wait, only to find themselves dealing with some unexpected opposition – a wandering traveler, a pair of unlikely guardians, and an innkeeper who’s more than he seems.
Don’t let that simple story fool you, though. Indeed, much of the joy of Dragon Inn – which I truly, really loved – comes from the way it uses its archetypal characters to their utmost. The closest comparison I can come up with is saying that Dragon Inn is to martial arts movies what Sergio Leone westerns are to normal Westerns – recognizably the same genre, but done with style to spare, an attention to visuals that’s striking, and an ability to turn a simple story into something operatic.
Even better, Dragon Inn is just plain fun, staging its martial arts action with more humor and creativity than I expected, and delivering more laugh-out-loud moments than I thought there’d be, from the dialogue to some of the staging. And in moving away from traditional martial arts and towards the wuxia school (slightly magical, less realistic), the film soars, letting its characters actions move beyond reality into something more sweeping and effective. More than that, the characters become defined through their actions – their confidence, their style, their presence. And it makes every battle and confrontation all the more gripping and effective as a result.
The short version? I loved it -it’s fun, exciting, beautifully shot, got a fantastic sense of humor, wonderful action, and a story that draws you in with its simplicity. It’s a complete blast, and I can’t recommend it enough. Dragon Inn: *****
But then there’s A Touch of Zen, which, in some ways, is a whole other animal. It’s longer, by far, than Dragon Inn – almost 70 minutes longer, which makes for a movie that’s over three hours long. That’s long by any standards, much less for a martial arts movie. And the story here is, in some ways, more complex, and in other ways, almost identical. Again, we have exiles pursued by officers of a corrupt regime, and a last stand being planned in an isolated community. But while Dragon Inn was simple and pulpy, A Touch of Zen goes on digressions, be it life in a small town, the relationship between a local boy and his mother, the possible haunting of a local fort, or life among a group of traveling monks. And in those digressions, the film evolves into something deeper, more profound – a study of life in these times, as well as the impact of religion in this world.
And yet, make no mistake, this is a martial arts film, and a brilliant one at that. It’s also one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and only made more so by the beautiful 4k restoration that’s recently been done. There is a battle in a bamboo forest that ranks among the most astonishing scenes I’ve ever seen, and that’s matched throughout by no end of brilliant use of lighting, smoke, and shadows. More than that, the wuxia touches that appeared in Dragon Inn reach a peak here, as the fights become something sweeping and majestic, often done without soundtrack other than the rustle of their clothes and the clashing of the blades.
Yes, A Touch of Zen is a bit long – maybe too long, especially with a long final section that almost feels like an epilogue from a different film at times. And yet, it’s hard not to be awed by the overall impact, as the story unspools in a complicated pattern that’s both true to the operatic style of Dragon Inn and yet more character-driven as well. A Touch of Zen is undeniably the “better” film – the visual style is breathtaking, the story richer, the character work more satisfying. It may not be as purely “fun” as Dragon Inn, but that doesn’t take away from its power or beauty, nor the creativity of its action, or the richness of the world it constructs. A Touch of Zen: *****