The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, April 20-26

Roy Chiao and Han Ying Chieh in King Hu’s A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Friday, April 22 – Thursday, May 5. A Touch of Zen (1971)
Directed by King Hu
Has any action film strived for transcendence as openly as A Touch of Zen? Despite the occasional religious reference, the first half of this three-hour wuxia epic is focused mostly on establishing its characters and plot: the duplicity that forces Yang (Hsu Feng) and two of her aides to hide out in a small village, and which draws in Gu (Shi Jun), an aspiring scholar/slacker who finally finds a purpose to his otherwise aimless life in helping protect Yang. If anything, Gu’s arc is just as important to Hu’s vision as Yang’s plans to retreat to the monastic Buddhist life. Not a character with much real-world experience, Gu exudes the glee of a schoolboy in helping Yang & co. scheme and strategize, that giddiness most memorably represented by his uncontrolled laughing fit as he surveys the corpse-littered damage the morning after a nighttime siege in his village… but then, upon realizing Yang has left, that laughter dies in his throat, triumph replaced with horror. Right there is an encapsulation of Hu’s moral and spiritual vision; no more is this violence mere fun and games. From there, it’s only a couple steps toward a renunciation of worldly matters altogether, envisioned by Hu as a climactic blinding speck of dust and a majestic vision of a monk achieving a neon-colored higher plane of existence, to which not even Gu can help but simply bow down in awe. Kenji Fujishima (New 4K restoration April 22-May 5 at Film Forum, showtimes daily; on DVD July 19 via the Criterion Collection)

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