Why I Love… #123: A Touch of Zen

Year: 1970

Director: King Hu

Stars: Shi Jun, Xu Feng, Bai Ying

Journeying back and forth along the timeline of cinema you can end up with some surprising contrasts. The last film to feature in this series was Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn; as perfect an example of modern ‘slow cinema’ as one could identify. That the film itself immortalises the work of master wuxia director King Hu has spun me back to the ’60s and ’70s, for an overdue revisit with Hu’s justified classics. Dragon Inn is worthy of canonisation – it feels, often, like the movie Quentin Tarantino has been trying to make for half his career – but just as needful of celebration is this; A Touch of Zen.

Taking Tsai Mind-liang’s lead, Jia Zhangke also named a film in honour of Hu – this time his 2013 anthology A Touch of Sin – a half-rhyme reminiscence that continues to outline Hu’s great influence in East Asian cinema. Returning to A Touch of Zen, I was struck by its epic majesty. It’s a big ol’ slab of a movie, clocking in at 180 minutes. But it’s also a masterclass in storytelling, with a plot that evolves slowly but deliberately over those three hours, changing, mutating nimbly. As nimbly as its choreographed warriors whose swords dance among bamboo groves and supposedly haunted houses.

In a small Chinese village, painter and calligrapher Gu Shengzhai (Shi Jun) lives with his mother, frustrating her with his lack of ambition. He’s a somewhat goofy character (a contrast to the more poised central figure Jun played for Hu in Dragon Inn). Now in his thirties, his mother (Zhang Bingyu) wishes he would marry and become an official, but Gu is disinterested. That is, until he meets a mysterious newcomer to the area; the young and beautiful Miss Yang Huizhen (Xi Feng).

Having forged new ground in Dragon Inn with a capable female warrior planted among the film’s men, Hu continues to normalise such behaviour here. Yang is a master warrior herself, ruthlessly sought out by a couple of generals who are hellbent on wiping out her lineage. None of this is immediately apparent. Hu teases out the truth like so much yarn, and much of the first hour is spent prodding us to ask questions. We’re like Gu, in a way, being led guilelessly into the maze of the plot.

Based on a Pu Songling short story – The Magnanimous Girl – Hu’s film is rightly considered one of the defining martial arts epics ever made; the gravity-defying grace of his jumping combatants hugely influential on the genre that boomed in its wake (the wire-work that proved so popular again in the early ’00s thanks to breakout films from the likes of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou). But A Touch of Zen is so captivating and unique because of Hu’s eagerness to fold in other genre tropes as well. Gu’s dopiness early on makes him a comic clown, and Jun goofs like a Taiwanese Jim Carrey, so there’s a broadly comic feel. In a riveting early sequence, when Gu explores the house next door that he assumes to be haunted, Hu shoots his journey through the darkened building as though A Touch of Zen were a horror film, and the pacing of the sequence and the creeping moves of his camera in the gloom feel strongly reminiscent of Hollywood’s recent fondness for the ghost story (although Hu’s ability with atmosphere outstrips nearly all of these that come to mind).

This brief swerve into horror filmmaking – while a delight in itself – serves another purpose later on, when Gu and Yang – now lovers – flee the village and Gu starts to operate as her master strategist. He’s evolved now, less of a silly figure. Here, in the second half of the picture, the mode changes again to the tactical play of a war picture. One of Gu’s masterstrokes is to spread rumours that the area where they are to be found is haunted. Then, with an elaborate array of dummies and other effects, Gu and Yang terrorise the soldiers already fearful of the fantastic. The early haunted house sequence prefigures this, and the comic tone of the first hour is resurrected in the interplay.

Come the third act, Hu’s martial arts spectacle comes into full effect, as opposing, colour-coded warriors clash in forests, bouncing as though on trampolines to balance on tree limbs. These fights are truly cinematic; using the form itself to express the operatic ballet in combat. An inventive leap for action cinema. In the scale and sweep of the picture you can also feel a slight European influence also, particularly from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Hu makes his wide shots as grandiose as Leone does, and he’s also fond of the occasional fast-cut to a close-up on his actors, using an incredulous reaction shot as a kind of exclamation mark.

The psychedelia of the era also comes to play a part at the finale. Lens flares lend the picture a kaleidoscopic effect, as does Hu’s use of slow motion, montage and extreme shallow focus. When a pitted battle is interrupted by the arrival of monks led by Abbot Huiyuan (Qiao Hong), Hu makes their entrance feel like a rapturous deus ex machina, like they’ve been beamed in from the stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The final desert scene also shares some visual signatures with Kubrick’s hallucinogenic milestone.

With the main fight sequences staged in the depths of the forest, nobody wears green. Camouflage might be a militaristic tactic that could’ve helped either side; but Hu prefers to present his actors theatrically, popping against the verdant backdrops in more colourful attire. It’s worth remembering that liberal use of colour in cinema was also still relatively new (the ’70s made it commonplace but throughout the ’60s monochrome was still more common). Hu appears to be having as much fun with the possibilities of a full pallete range as anyone at the time.

Thanks to its size and scale, A Touch of Zen isn’t perhaps a film that you’ll return to a multitude of times. Or, at least, not frequently (unless you’re obsessed by its theatrics). Instead it sits in that special clutch of epics that make for splendid occasional viewing, most likely when you’ve the time to relish in the long-form richness of the piece. A perfect Sunday picture, as one might be tempted to call them. But don’t confuse that for pedestrian or passive. Hu’s masterwork is vibrant and defined by its ability to flex. It asks for your attention, and it rewards it.


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