Starring Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Tien Peng, Cho Kin, Miao Tian, Cheung Bing-Yuk, Sit Hon, Wang Shui, Roy Chiao Hung, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San, Sammo Hung
Directed by King Hu
A Touch of Zen starts off innocently enough, but by the end of the film the viewer has journeyed through religion, the soul and the more standard martial intrigue you were probably expecting. It is a martial arts film wholly unlike any I’ve ever seen, coming years ahead of its time and eschewing nearly all the general ideas of entertainment that martial arts films are usually built upon. A Touch of Zen is a wuxia film with higher aspirations. It is a fascinating, pure example of film as art, and like any good work of art, true understanding only comes with extended thought and multiple viewings. This is the type of film that people spend their whole lives in awe of; its power to provoke thought while also engaging the more primal needs is unique and unparalleled.
A Touch of Zen is partially based on the story The Gallant Girl (or The Magnanimous Girl) from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and it is here that the film draws its initial characters and setting. Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) is a scholar living in the derelict Ching Lu Fort. He studies not for wealth or status, but for personal gain and knowledge, much to the chagrin of his mother who thinks a man over 30 should be married and on his way to a lucrative career. Ku’s stall in the nearby town, where he paints portraits and does calligraphy, just doesn’t fit the bill in her eyes. So when a young woman and her elderly mother move into the nearby general’s mansion that has stood uninhabited for many years, Ku’s mother immediately thinks of joining the two families.
This feels like an inadequate plot description — it barely scratches the surface — but I’ll have to stop there. The plot is one that slowly reveals itself over time, and as it does so the entire film seamlessly shifts itself into another genre, while still remaining true to its core story. This makes it feel closer to real life, where we are not tied to any one specific mood for the duration. Perceptions change, the truth comes to light, and our experiences change us in ways we never could have imagined. To be able to reflect life in this manner, while also delivering a layered, traditional wuxia storyline, is definitely a feat that few, if any, of the film’s contemporaries could boast.
A Touch of Zen was initially released in two parts, and the first part is largely without fights. In a three-hour film, this might seem like a bad thing, but the drought of combat actually serves to enhance and augment the fights that are there. Each battle contains a foreboding sense of dread, with life or death hanging in the balance. And the second part is actually almost all action, give or take a few minutes, so if you’re here only for the action you will eventually get what you came for.
But even then the fights in A Touch of Zen are not the genre-standard action setpieces. They do not entertain in a traditional way. It’s hard to explain; all I can think to say is that the fights feel tragic. Like tragic in the same way I’d feel if I was just going about my day and people started physically trying to kill one another in front of me. The sense of fear, and wondering why it had come to this, would play heavy in my mind, and it’s a similar feeling in A Touch of Zen. There’s also an inevitability to the violence that furthers the tragedy. As a seasoned filmgoer you know that revenge will ultimately be sought, but here it feels more like the inevitability of time passing; the characters aren’t performing for your pleasure, but simply living their lives. I could probably continue trying to relate how it felt, but I don’t think it would do any good; it’s the sort of film you just have to see for yourself.
A Touch of Zen is a long film, but it doesn’t feel overlong in any way. The extra time allows director King Hu the time necessary to tell a rich story and explore the themes with a subtle grace. This kind of thing just isn’t possible in a 90-minute wuxia, nor would it have been possible when Hu was at Shaw Brothers. Studios generally stick to what will entertain and make them money, and arthouse wuxias aren’t known for putting butts in seats. The film did end up doing relatively well at the HK box office, though, coming in at #21 sandwiched in-between Golden Harvest’s The Fast Sword and Shaw’s Duel for Gold.
Quite far from being a standard wuxia film, A Touch of Zen is one of the most interesting and intriguing genre entries I’ve ever seen. It’s the type of film that legitimizes the martial arts genre as an art form, showing that they can be much more than a series of fights over a wrongdoing. In fact, A Touch of Zen was the first Chinese action film to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and I couldn’t think of a better film to hold that honor. So it’s a real shame to consider that this film, along with Hu’s previous film Dragon Inn, are largely unavailable in the home market. The editions that do exist are faded prints with masters most likely created for the VHS days. But thankfully, I think those days are soon to be over. Both films have been recently remastered by the Taiwan Film Archive, and Masters of Cinema in the UK have said that Blu-ray editions will be releasing this summer. Hopefully a US release isn’t too far behind! Finally, the film world will be able to adore and appreciate these wonderful films as they were meant to be seen!
Edit: In July 2016, Criterion released A Touch of Zen on Blu-ray and DVD!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: the mop-up of older films (both Shaw and non-Shaw) continues with Wu Ma’s second film, Deaf & Mute Heroine! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)