A Touch of Zen [俠女] (1971)
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.