A Touch of Zen is King Hu’s masterpiece, yet unless you’re patient and a bit adventurous, it may not be the best introduction to his work. Dragon Inn, his straightforward wuxia classic from 1967, might be a more palatable entry point into King Hu’s filmography for most people. (Like A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn has also undergone a 4K restoration and will have a theatrical run followed by a Criterion Collection release. Look for our review of Dragon Inn in the coming weeks.)
Filmed over three years and released as two films in Taiwan in 1970 and 1971, A Touch of Zen was bolted together as a single three-hour picture for its foreign release. The epic was lauded at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains one of the most influential wuxia movies ever made.
Without A Touch of Zen, you don’t have contemporary prestige/art-house-friendly wuxia like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, or House of Flying Daggers; you might not have the Venom Mob movies of the 70s either, for that matter. Yet this isn’t a wuxia movie per se; it might be more accurate to think of the film as an art movie about Zen Buddhism with a touch of wuxia. This sounds like warning, or it might sound like a challenge. If you sensed the latter, you ought to accept the call to adventure.
A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 俠女)
Director: King Hu
Release Date: April 22, 2016 (New York, with subsequent expansion)
A Touch of Zen is such a singular sort of movie. After the success of Come Drink with Me and Dragon Inn, Hu had the creative freedom to do what he wanted, and the result was a movie of different moods and different modes. There is the wuxia element centered around a heroic fugitive named Yang (Feng Hsu), a swordswoman fighting for her life after corrupt government officials have murdered the rest of her family. She’s one of Hu’s many female heroes, though this movie doesn’t have the same level of gender role confusion seen in other martial arts films. Yang is a woman but never mistaken for a man (the common genre convention), and she’s the most capable fighter in the film.
The centerpiece fight in the bamboo grove is an exhilarating bit of old school swordsman action. When A Touch of Zen was released as two films, the bamboo fight concluded the first movie and opened the second. Hu further adapts the theatrical movements of Peking Opera and the visual style of Japanese samurai pictures (en vogue at the time) to a swashbuckling cinematic form uniquely suited to Chinese martial arts. Trampolines give the heroes and villains a kind of superheroic flair as they clash with one another on rooftops and treetops. Hsu slashes, evades, and ripostes, and Hu cuts the action together to add intensity to the elegant movements on display. The action in A Touch of Zen feels like a transition period in fight choreography between the stage-like combat of the 1960s to the faster-paced cinematic combat that would be pioneered by later Shaw Brothers filmmakers Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung.
Yet the first fight doesn’t occur until at least one hour into the film. Instead of rollicking adventure, A Touch of Zen opens with the banal rhythms of pastoral life. We follow a bumbling mama’s boy/artist-scholar named Ku (Chun Shih), who takes an interest in Yang and a blind man (Ying Bai) who are hiding in an abandoned ruin. Ku is an archetypal fool, and a great vessel for the audience into the story (which has an archetypal opening: a stranger comes into town). While he’s crafty, Ku’s a coward and he falls in love too easily, which is a great contrast to Yang’s ruggedly stoic heroism. Before A Touch of Zen, Chun Shih played the hero of Hu’s Dragon Inn. In a subversive move, Hu has a previous star play against type and also against gender stereotype.
And then there’s the Zen Buddhism, which pervades the film’s visual style emphasizing nature, seasons, and impermanence. I mentioned patience at the beginning of the review, and Hu’s return to slow rhythms and long takes seems to give the audience a chance to breathe and take in each scene. A group of Buddhist monks show up when Yang is on the run, and they are unstoppable force and immovable object. They’re shot with diffuse or star-filtered light emanating from behind them, and they seem to be followed by a supernatural veil of mist. The Zen aspects figure heavily in the film’s unexpectedly bonkers finale, which I can only be described as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets El Topo.
The 4K digital restoration looks great during the daytime shots–you can make out the dust on King Hu’s camera lenses as he lovingly absorbs hillsides and waterfalls and sky–though I noticed some major issues with image noise during the nighttime scenes. One of the pivotal action sequences in the last half of the film is at night, and it was often difficult to make out what was happening in each scene. Part of it may be the limitations of lighting and photography that Hu had to work with back then, though I sense there might have been an issue with the projection and/or the copy I saw during my screening. I’m curious to see A Touch of Zen again now that it’s out in theaters, just to see for myself if the digital noise has been eliminated/addressed. Besides, I could use a little more patience and adventure in my life.