Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Based on a Story by: Songling Pu
Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai, Tien Peng, Roy Chiao
Running Time: 180 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
I generally pass on reviewing films I already own or have seen before (which points to free screener greed as being the key influence on my writing). However, I make exceptions now and again for firm favourites that I’d love to see on Blu-Ray or with added features. A Touch of Zen isn’t a film I’d give a full 5 stars to (as you can clearly see), but it’s a film that deserves to be seen in as high a quality format as possible and one that I was keen to revisit. I often struggle to find the time or enthusiasm to put on a three hour film, but reviewing commitments force me to put them on if I’ve requested a screener. Also, A Touch of Zen was highly talked up to me before my first viewing, so I was keen to watch it again without that level of expectation behind it.
A Touch of Zen has an unusual structure. It’s sort of split into three differing sections. The first hour is an intriguing mystery which sees the unambitious but intelligent painter Gu (Chun Shih) get caught up in some sort of conspiracy simmering between a handful of newcomers to town, Yang Hui-ching (Feng Hsu), Ouyang Nin (Tien Peng) and General Shi (Ying Bai). As we follow Gu through this period, the audience is kept in the dark for most of the first hour, but it remains gripping, aided by some supernatural elements as the old run down house which neighbours Gu’s and houses Yang is believed to be haunted.
Once Gu is let in on the secret behind these mysterious characters, about an hour in, the film opens out into an action thriller though. We discover that Yang is on the run from the Eastern Group (of which Ouyang is a chief officer), effectively the police force of the treacherous Eunuch Wei. Yang’s father has been executed for trying to speak out against Wei and the Group have been ordered to kill the rest of his family too. Hearing of this injustice, Gu agrees to help Yang and Shi, using his intellect and knowledge of the local area to help stage an ambush on the Group’s soldiers.
After these more standard action thriller elements, the film heads off in a totally new direction then for the final 40 minutes or so. Yang leaves Gu (with whom she had developed a close relationship) and enters a monastery, where she meets Abbot Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao). When Gu goes searching for Yang, he gets caught by some Eastern Group soldiers though and Yang, Shi, the Abbot and his pupils go to protect him. This may sound like a standard plot development, but instead it turns the film into a surreal Buddhist allegory, with a particularly trippy denouement.
Largely due to this ending, on top of the considerably long running time and shifting tones of the film, A Touch of Zen is a wuxia like no other, even now, 45 years on. At the same time however, it’s a clear influence on many of the genre’s films which followed. Director King Hu may have already turned heads with his previous two wuxia films, Come Drink With Me and Dragon Inn (which were much more commercially successful), but it’s A Touch of Zen that directors such as Ang Lee and Yimou Zhang have taken inspiration from in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers.
The scenes which are most heavily ‘borrowed’ from are the action set-pieces. Hu used the cinematic medium to bring dance-like Peking Opera styles of combat to life, having his characters perform feats impossible in physical reality with grace and beauty. Using clever editing techniques, rather than wires, he made his characters look like they were effortlessly jumping from the thin top branches of trees or firing themselves like an arrow from a great height. These set-pieces are the highlights of the film and remain tremendously exciting today, even if some of the techniques are a little dated.
The film looks gorgeous too. The output of the Shaw Brothers’ studio previously and around the time had always looked good, with lavish sets and costumes, but Hu (working out of Taiwan after disagreeing with the working practices of the Shaw Brothers) crafted a world that looks good whilst remaining natural looking and lived-in (most Shaw Brothers films look quite fake and over the top). His attention to detail meant his productions would drag on longer than most, driving his producers to despair, but the results can clearly be seen on screen.
It’s not just the production design that’s impressive though. Hu also knows how to shoot a beautiful looking film. He incorporates a lot of camera movement, giving the film a lot of energy and fluidity. He also adds depth to his frames whenever possible, placing characters or objects in the foreground, middle ground and background to keep every shot looking three dimensional and alive. His lighting is striking too, with a heavy use of strong beams shining through mist or smoke. In the first half there are plenty of night scenes which use strong shadows to create a sense of mystery and unease. Detail can be hard to make out here though as he makes his night scenes truly dark, rather than blue or ‘moonlit’ like most directors. This is important for the ambush though, so works.
The strange spiritual finale contains some of the film’s most memorable moments, such as the Abbot bleeding gold, but it did get a little too bizarre at times and some negative exposure shots haven’t aged well. On the whole though, the film is mightily impressive in terms of cinematic craft. It’s a hugely influential film that still feels unique, even after many of its imitators have started to look dated. For a three hour film it doesn’t drag its feet either, delivering a rich and varied experience throughout. I’m certainly glad I decided to give it a second watch as it’s a film that certainly justifies its Blu-Ray upgrade.
A Touch of Zen is out now on Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is very good. The night scenes are lacking in detail and hard to make out at times, but this might be down to the original source material more than the restoration job.
It’s a 3 disc set (a Blu-Ray and two DVD’s), with the second DVD featuring the documentary King Hu 1932-1997, a new video essay by critic David Cairns. At around 48 minutes, this provides an extensive look at Hu’s life and work, making for fascinating viewing. It made me all the more frustrated about how few of his films are available to watch in the UK though.
There’s also a scene specific (totalling to around an hour and a half) commentary included with the film, from Tony Rayns. I must admit I haven’t had chance to listen to this, but previous interviews and commentaries from Rayns have been strong so I imagine it will be well worth a listen.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which makes for recommended reading as always.