Reviewed by Nathaniel Poggiali
Shu Shuen's THE ARCH follows Madame Tung (Lisa Lu), a middle-aged teacher and doctor in a remote village in 17th century China. Tung is a respected member of the community, a widower whose loyalty to her late husband and dedication to the family name have not gone unnoticed: villagers request that the emperor have an arch erected as a symbol of the schoolteacher's virtue and service. Tung agrees to billet a group of soldiers in her home and falls in love with the young captain, Yang Kwan, who is also smitten and leaves romantic poetry around Tung's home for the widower to find. When Tung's daughter falls for Yang Kwan her mother encourages the couple to be married. Tung, however, is still attracted to the captain and afraid of scandal if she acts on her desires.
Debuting director Shuen’s use of still frames and dissolves is impressive, and the score has a lute converging with images in startling ways -- through water running in a stream, or the killing of a chicken, or an awkward moment when Tung and Yang Kwan cover hands to trap a springing cricket. Lisa Lu (a veteran of American TV shows from the '60s, and most recently seen in LUST, CAUTION) is so convincing -- always in tune with the nuances of her role -- that it's difficult not to be drawn into Madame Tung's self-imposed ordeal.
It's too bad that everything else about THE ARCH is an ordeal, particularly the pacing. Shuen tries to stretch what would have made an effective short to 90 minutes. She gets too caught up with visual motifs, undermining her leading actress and losing the viewer's investment in a compelling tragic figure. THE ARCH is a glorified soap opera, amusing in spots (certainly pleasant to look at) but not very exciting or enlightening.
The film was shot and distributed overseas in 1969 and had a limited run in Los Angeles the same year. It didn't reach NYC until April 1972, when it was praised by Judith Crist of New York magazine and trashed by Vincent Canby of the Times. Documentary filmmaker Les Blank was one of the editors and receives credit for additional photography; the film is available on DVD through his web site (http://www.lesblank.com/main.html).