A Touch of Zen
d. King Hu (1971)
The Criterion Collection

In the late 1960s and early 1970s director King Hu was trailblazing the wuxia genre — works of art that showcase warriors in ancient China — in film and bringing it to the attention of audiences around the world. After great success with 1966’s Come Drink with Me and 1967’s Dragon Inn, Hu’s ambition soared and the result is the three-hour, mysterious, beautiful epic A Touch of Zen. Today The Criterion Collection is releasing a lovely home video edition that I heartily recommend.

I had never seen A Touch of Zen, which some consider Hu’s masterpiece, until I popped in the Criterion disc. My son (who turns eight today — happy birthday!) was with me and I thought, hmmm, I wonder how long he’ll watch this three-hour, subtitled film with me. After about a half hour I realized that he was completely engaged, though neither of us knew exactly what was going on. He was reading the subtitles and knew as much as I knew about who the characters were, even if we were still working out their motives and who they really were. There hadn’t even been any real sword fights yet! We were both captivated by the mysterious beauty, and I started to understand the power of this film.

Here’s a bit of that mysterious beauty: A Touch of Zen opens with various shots of spider webs doing their job catching various unsuspecting bugs. Soon, a mist develops and the world begins to light up as dawn shows us the majesty of this world.

A Touch of Zen 1

The beautiful scenery is awe inspiring. The cinematography is definitely one of the reasons my son was able to stay engaged even in the absence of much action. The world of A Touch of Zen is beautiful, though it harbors the nitty-gritty machinations of man and beast. As the opening continues, though, we see that this nature is overtaking an old, abandoned fort. Those who live around its ruins are poor and wonder if it is haunted. The stage is set, and the ambience is one of the stars of the show.

One of these is the thirty-year-old Gu Sheng-zhai, an unambitious (in the eyes of his mother) painter and calligrapher.

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Shih Chun as Gu Sheng-zhai

Gu is presented as rather naïve at first, though he begins to see strangers acting strangely as he sits painting in his booth at the city center. At night, when he goes home and listens to his mother encourage him to do something with his life, he hears noises over in the abandoned building.

It’s not until a half hour has passed that we finally understand who is haunting the old building and why all of these strangers have shown up in this particular village. This is not a bad thing at all; indeed, it works beautifully to develop the film’s mysterious and at times mystical ambience. The underlying story does not falter, but it becomes clear that Hu is not simply presenting a narrative. He’s exploring the liminal space between man and nature and transcendence.

Because I so enjoyed the build up, I’m not going to say more about the plot itself. It suffices my purposes here to say that eventually Gu meets Yang Hui-zhen, a woman on the run, and he steps up his game to help her with her troubles.

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Hsu Feng as Yang Hui-zhen

Strangely, though, both Gu and Yang get pushed aside as we witness a showdown between the Buddhist Abbot Hui-yuan and a corrupt general. It’s a remarkable fight between good and evil.

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Roy Chiao as Abbot Hui-yuan

Gu and Yang become bystanders in their own story, though that story eventually comes back around to them, leaving us to wonder just what they are going to do.

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King Hu’s vision of transcendence is captured on this film. The action scenes are brutal and poetic, something my son has never seen before; indeed, though I’ve seen many films influenced by this style — particularly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — the balletic motion was still fresh and invigorating.

The whole film was fresh and invigorating. It was a world I loved experiencing, and I hope we get some more King Hu soon!

The Criterion Collection edition:

  • Interview with Hsu Feng: In this 13:47-minute interview, Hsu Feng discusses her work with King Hu, in particular her starring role in A Touch of Zen.
  • Interview with Shih Chun: Shih Chun also worked with King Hu for some time, and he discusses the various roles, focusing in particular on Gu in A Touch of Zen, in this 17:27-minute interview.
  • King Hu: 1932 – 1997: This is a 47:58-minute documentary from 2012 is an excellent overview of the life and career of King Hu. We know that Criterion has the rights to Dragon Inn, and I hope we see it soon because my appetite is large.
  • Interview with Ang Lee: As I mentioned above, Ang Lee’s hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was influenced greatly by Hu’s A Touch of Zen. In this 13:35-minute interview, Lee openly discusses his admiration for the film and how he used it to create his own work of art.
  • Interview with Tony Rayns: This is my favorite supplement of the bunch. It’s a 34:05-minute interview with scholar Tony Rayns, produced by The Criterion Collection this year. While Rayns is quite dry, his insights into Hu’s life and work are invaluable. I particularly enjoyed his discussion on the structure of A Touch of Zen, which, he explains, moves from the personal, to the political, to the spiritual.
  • The disc also comes with a trailer and an essay by David Bordwell.
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