Touch of Zen, A (1971)
Director: King Hu
Cast: Hsu Feng, Chun Shih, Ying Bai
Plot: An artist, Ku, lives with his mother near an abandoned fort, reputed to be haunted. One night, investigating strange noises, he meets the beautiful Yang who is living there. She is being pursued by agents of an Imperial noble who have murdered her family.
Genre: Action / Adventure / Drama
Awards: Won Technical Grand Prize, nominated for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Source: Taiwan Film Institute
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
It won the Grand Technical Prize at Cannes, announcing King Hu at the international stage, and introducing wuxia to the West. It is an ambitious epic, with a runtime of 200 minutes. Yet it is not Hu's best work in my opinion. I like to give the analogy of David Lean, whose longest epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is often regarded as his crowning achievement, but I feel otherwise.
A Touch of Zen is Hu's Lawrence, and just maybe because of its length and Cannes win, it has been accorded with more respect and praise over the years than some of his more underrated and underseen works like The Valiant Ones (1975) and Raining in the Mountain (1979).
Starring Shih Chun (whom I had the pleasure to meet in person) as a meek but intelligent studio painter called Ku Shen Chai who gets entangled in a web of intrigue, manhunt and violence. Hu's film builds the story patiently and effectively. We get to know the characters, including a mysterious swordswoman (whom the movie's Chinese title 'Xia Nu' is named after).
The government tries to hunt her down after murdering her father, who accused them of corruption. With the help of two 'rogue' generals, she seeks temporary shelter in a vacant house opposite Ku's place, only to draw the latter's curiosity.
It takes a while for action to occur, but when it does you won't blink, especially an outstanding and incredible swordfighting sequence in the bamboo forest just before the picture's intermission that might have inspired Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004). Hu's mastery of shooting wuxia action through a range of technical feats is unparalleled. The marriage of cinematography, editing and fight choreography here is a match made in heaven.
One of the great joys of cinema is to see a filmmaker working at the height of his powers: A Touch of Zen clearly sees Hu coming into his own, forging a style and authenticity that is uniquely his, while at the same time taking on an ambitious project that, according to Shih Jun, took three years to shoot.
A Touch of Zen is perhaps the first Hu movie that is imbued with a strong sense of spirituality, particularly of Buddhism. These themes would again appear in films like Raining, and Legend of the Mountain (1979). Monks appear in Zen, but while they may be a curious sight in a wuxia film, the head monk (with great power and skill) takes on a more central role in advocating non-violence towards the last quarter of the film.
It is indeed 'a touch of Zen', and consequently Hu's picture becomes a deeper evocation of religion, repentance and peaceful coexistence. A Touch of Zen doesn't feel like three hours, which is always an excellent indicator that this is a film of superb storytelling and pacing that ought to be seen on the big screen.
Verdict: King Hu's most epic and ambitious film, and possibly his best work in the eyes of many.
*Last viewing - Nov' 17
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