Review Date: 9/1/18
Written And Directed By: King Hu
Cast: Hsu Feng, Sun Yueh, Tien Feng, Shih Chun
The abbot of a mountain temple decides that it's time to name his successor, so he invites several associates to visit and discuss the matter. A wealthy businessman named Wen (Sun Yueh) is the first to arrive, accompanied by two thieves named White Fox (Hsu Feng) and Gold Lock who are posing as his concubine and servant, respectively. Their goal is to steal a priceless scroll written by Tripitaka that's being kept in the temple's library. General Wang (Tien Feng) and Lieutenant Chang arrive later with the same goal, which sets up a complex game of plotting, counter-plotting, spying, and sneaking around. The final wildcard thrown into the mix is a convicted criminal named Chiu Ming, who comes to the temple to become a monk. Is he after the scroll, too? The abbot is a wise old man who carefully observes the increasingly tense situation and patiently waits for everyone to show their true faces.
It's a beautifully filmed meditation on Buddhism and the cinematography is dazzling. Shots are framed with the skill and precision of a master craftsman, and the locations are stunning. My biggest takeaway from the film was a sense of color and texture, as the wood and stone construction of the temple seems to take on a life of its own. Everything looks and feels like the real deal, as opposed to just being a movie set. As you would expect from King Hu, the pacing is laborious and there's very little action. The film's only fight scene takes place 100 minutes into the running time, and while it's rather brief, it's always fun to see Hsu Feng in action. She's dangerously beautiful and burns up the screen with her withering gaze and scornful pout. What's shocking to me is that I've seen her in at least a dozen films, and this is the first time that I can recall seeing her smile. She has an alarmingly unattractive smile, so it's no wonder she made a career out of playing fiercely defiant and hot-tempered characters. She is a joy to watch, although she disappears for nearly an hour in the middle of the film as the drama unfolds around the other characters. It's a quiet and thoughtful film that carefully blends nature with human nature, and if you don't go into it expecting a lot of high flying swordplay action, it's easy to let yourself get lost in its bold and fantastic scenery.