Sunday 12 July 2015

A Rush of Zen - Chen Kaige's Monk Comes Down the Mountain

Watching Chen Kaige's new movie Monk Comes Down the Mountain just a week or so after seeing the restoration of King Hu's A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971) you realise very quickly that much energy is going to be expended in pursuit of some fairly routine outcomes. The monk in question, "He Anxia", and there's a nice joke about his name I haven't recorded, cleans up the members of a mountain top monastery thinking this would advance his position and prestige only to be told that no, it means he is being exiled out of the place to learn about the world.

The world it turns out is a big city in the thirties with shiny cars and come on look babes and fat diners in restaurants. You dont get the impression that we should, unlike King Hu's film take this very seriously as a representation of historical reality. Its a fairground movie studio composite of a thirties big town. After some trick work he is taken in by a doctor who owns an elegant pharmacy who needs assistance and who has a wife who is fooling round behind his back with the doctor's very camp brother. All three come to sticky ends within a half hour or so leaving the monk in charge of the pharmacy and setting him off on a range of new adventures involving gangsters, monks, kung fu specialists, a corrupt police chief and fleetingly a girl friend. As played by Wang Baoqiang, He Anxia is the irrepressible smiling force though as the movie proceeds he starts to take second place to loner monk and fighting machine Zhou Xuyi (Aaron Kwok) who fights the final fight before the two of them retreat to the monastery (ooops, but you knew it was coming anyway.)

On the way through there are one or two well-choreographed fight sequences and several which are as boring as batshit. The sequence involving the fight on the tightrope is rather the best of them. Otherwise its mostly bloodless and notwithstanding some intimations of sexual behaviour quite sexless. Objects of desire are mostly missing.

It ends, again taking its cue from A Touch of Zen in a bombastic over-ripe depiction of Buddha's greatness and much smarmy rhetoric being spoken on the soundtrack.

The film is an international co-production of some sort. Columbia Pictures gets a credit as one of three producers. There is also a local connection to the film. The photography is directed by Geoffrey Simpson and he seems to have a specially chosen team with European names to assist him. The music is by by someone with a European name as well. Chen's reputation endures though there doesn't seem to be anything specially noteworthy in either Simpson's or the composer's efforts.
I assume its all been done according to the dictates of the day. We are indeed a long way from Yellow Earth (1984) and King of the Children (1987), and even from Farewell my Concubine (1993). The excellent English subtitles are by Linda Jaivin. I'm not sure whether Oz audiences were offered the the 3-D version that went out in China. It's 2-D only at Event in George St.

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