Indisputably the Sentimental Education of Mao-era wuxia epics, King Hu’s never-forgotten 1971 landmark was the first wallop of Chinese genre mayhem many Westerners ever saw, and it won a prize at Cannes. Made in Taiwan, not Hong Kong, before Mao’s ban of all fun on the mainland was lifted, this three-hour-plus intrigue-athon begins when a supremely hot and impossibly cool mystery woman (Hsu Feng) moves into a haunted fort (really, a seductive, ramshackle theme park simulacrum of ancient China), attracting the interest of a local artist/buffoon (Shih Jun) but also bringing in her wake a torrent of internecine conflict, masquerading blindmen, warrior badasses, and a powerful eunuch’s sword-flashing minions.
Hu didn’t invent wuxia hijinks here (he did that earlier with Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn), but the trampolining brio at work was the hi-test in the engine of the Hong Kong assault of the ‘80s and ‘90s, not to mention Crouching Tiger and its digitally-assisted bamboo-grove battle. Surprisingly, for all of its magical cartwheels and matinee silliness, the film and its bug-eyed naif hero (a wuxia oddity right there) gain tragic stature and resonance in the third hour and beyond, and a stirring case is made for Buddhist purity of heart. Still, it’s not a breathless or economical film; the old-school yarn and serene action editing can be, at such length, almost meditative. Settle in, feel your breathing, and get saturated.