I watched this last night and I feel compelled to write a short review because I enjoyed it so much. I should say that it probably isn’t every ones cup of tea as there’s only three fights which are quite brief (apart from the finale), I was expecting that though so I really wasn’t disappointed. One thing that it has got though is athmosphere - and plenty of it.
The story is centered around an isolated monastery which is about to choose another new Abbot. Several outsiders - a local general (Tien Feng), wealthy businessman (Suen Yuet) and Buddhist master Wu Wai (along with his entourage of beautiful ladies) are invited by the elderly Abbot to help him make a decision regarding the succession. They all have an ulterior motive though as they all plan to gain possession (by hook or by crook) of a valuable scripture, said to have been written by the mythical Tripitaka himself, which the Monastery owns. Yuen Sat even takes along the famed thief ‘White Fox’ (Hsu Feng) disguised as his concubine - he really wants that scripture!
As I said there’s not really much action to attract kung fu fans to this film - maybe that’s why it remains relatively unknown in comparison to King Hu’s other classics. What action there is is competently filmed although it is vaguely reminiscent of 60’s choreography despite being made in 1979. For the first 90 minutes of the two hour running time there’s only really two short fights but at the end when the story is reaching it’s conclusion there is a great chase and fight sequence, involving all the protagonists, through the woods as they try and make off with the scripture. Luckily this part of the film lasts for 10 or 15 minutes and it put me in mind of the woods scenes in A Touch of Zen - one of my favourite bits of film period.
What makes this film great, for me anyway, is the way King Hu has filmed it which is quite beautiful, the way he uses the awesome monastery settings and local scenery is quite breathtaking and as good as any of his other films. There is very little dialogue for long periods of time but this just seems to add to the atmosphere of the peaceful monastery, this is offset by the great soundtrack of traditional chinese music and peking opera percussion that punctuates the action and movement in a similar way as it did in ‘Dragon Gate Inn’.
Although the running time is quite long at almost two hours it doesn’t really seem to drag because of the great visuals, tense atmosphere and good performances (from Hsu Feng in particular). Don’t get it if you want to see an action movie but hunt it down if you can appreciate a sublimely crafted film.