Breathtakingly photographed by Joe Chan Jun-Git and expertly directed by King Hu, this spiritual Buddhist fable from 1979 is an intriguing blend of wuxia-style film-making while also dabbling in the deeper meaning of Zen.

Set in a remote Buddhist monastery in 16th century China, the tale of power-struggle and intrigue lays the groundwork for this martial arts caper though for the first hour of the film, martial arts kicks are far and few between! An ageing Abbott needs to look for his successor and thus invites three outsiders to advise him. They are the wealthy patron of the monastery Esquire Wen, local military commander-in-chief General Wang and respected Buddhist master Wu Wai. However, Esquire Wen and General Wang have ulterior motives because they are in fact scheming to get their hands on a priceless scroll stacked away inside the monastery. It is the scriptural text of ‘The Mahayana Sutra’ which is hand-copied by Tripitaka. Also arriving at the monastery is convicted criminal Chiu Ming, now wishing to make atonements by becoming a monk. Assigned to safeguard the precious scroll not only does he have his hands full to ward off Esquire Wen, Wu Wai and General Wang but to make matters worse Wang’s fearsome and loathsome Lieutnant Chang – a truly nasty piece of work who originally framed Chiu Ming for a crime he was innocent of – is also in on the game. Oh, and let’s not forget ‘White Fox’ – a feisty dame posing as Esquire Wen’s concubine but who is a master thief in her own right.

Thus the stage is set for plenty of spying, silently creeping about and zapping to and fro in a manner that is as discreet, as subdued and as secret as possible. During the second half, however, director Hu lets well and truly rip and we are treated to leaping handmaidens, ferocious fights in the forest and the usual gravity-defying martial arts stunts so typical of this genre. Of course, there is an almost ironic twist towards the end when almost all of the dodgers have met their much deserved fate… but we won’t give the ending away.

King Hu, who also wrote the screenplay and used much of the same actors who already appeared in the simultaneously shot ‘Legend of the Mountain’ really takes his time here to allow both the characters and well as the story to unfold slowly before all mayhem breaks loose.

Eureka has just released this masterpiece in Dual Format, and with a Limited Edition O-card slipcase for the first 2000 copies.