This sumptuous wuxia classic continues to thrill and enchant.
Somewhere in Ming dynasty China, Gu (Shih Jun) is a sign writer and scroll painter, living with his mum in his 30s and unattached, an embarrassment to her for his lack of ambition. He won’t take the exams that would enhance his status, he hasn’t married, and is far too content to spend his life with ink and paper for her liking. He isn’t lacking for curiosity, though, and observes the arrival of strangers in town closely. Members of the Eastern Group secret police force are turning up in increasing numbers, there’s a blind fortune teller (Ying Bai), and, more alluringly, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), who has moved, late at night, into the creepy house/fort next door. Getting in over his head Gu finds that the latter two are fugitives; he’s a general, named Shi, she’s a warrior whose father has been slain by a corrupt official who has the same fate in mind for her and the rest of her bloodline. Gu is seduced by Yang, by her story, and by the chance to apply the military knowledge he has been acquiring his entire life. But this is not ink and paper, and as the fights, melees and all-out battles ensue, a lot of very real blood is going to be shed.
A classic of the genre, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1970) added an undeniable touch of class to the martial arts movie. It’s long, at an epic 200 minutes, it’s in Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese of the standard Hong Kong chop socky flick, and, whilst fully delivering on wild action, also serves up a fair amount of philosophy and contemplation, ultimately ending up in a decidedly trippy vision of Buddhist salvation that would go down like a lead balloon at a Sonny Chiba all-nighter. Moreover, A Touch of Zen largely eschews the formulaic vengeance dynamics that largely dominates the genre. Its bookish hero fails entirely to undergo training by a master and transform into a death-dealing warrior in order to take out the chief bad guy in the last reel. Instead he is taken on a far less familiar arc, left literally holding the baby as his battles are fought for him, largely disappearing in the third act. This hurts the film a little, because Shih Jun’s Gu is an immensely likeable and engaging character, a 14th-century proto-geek. There’s something child-like about him, dreamy and detached, and overtaken by his enthusiasms. His loss of innocence when confronted by the actual corpses that all of his invention has led to is genuinely distressing. Miss Yang also surprises, less for being so damn kick-ass with a sword or throwing weapon, which must have been unusual in 1970, if less so now, but for her no-nonsense attitude about what she wants and what she’s prepared to do. We can glean her inner turmoil from her furrowed brow, and we understand from the tragic past story what has happened to make her this way, but in her onscreen time she is taciturn and self-contained and, in Hollywood terms, bracingly unsentimental or sympathetic, in a manner that would still be refreshing and novel in modern cinema.
There’s a distinct change of tone for the last act, in a fashion familiar to fans of Eastern cinema. The mystery story with spooky overtones that dominated the narrative gives way to a series of running skirmishes against a new Eastern Group enforcer. Yang and General Shi come to the fore, and are in turn sidelined when the abbot of the monastery to which they are fleeing (Roy Chiao) takes the stage. That the film is not totally derailed by all this gear crunching is mainly down to King Hu’s film-making suss. A Touch of Zen is, if nothing else, an extraordinary piece of visual storytelling. It’s fascinating to see how Leone’s Westerns, themselves inspired by Kurosawa’s samurai films have been absorbed into this Taiwanese concoction’s stylistic bones, but A Touch of Zen is more mystical and multifarious than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and has its eyes on more than gold. The film sets its scene with images of spider webs, moves on to countryside scenes, and shows us around the abandoned fort, with not a single human figure in sight for the first five minutes. Large sections are wordless, where composition, choreography and Wu Dajiang’s impressively expressive score combine to create a fluid whole. It’s about faces and figures moving in and out of shadow, beams of light cutting through smoke, and landscape after landscape. Hu’s restless camera doesn’t merely observe, it aims to bedazzle and concuss and terrify, summoning different moods and atmospheres depending on the demands of the story, progressing through dust and rock and rain through to the final reel’s colour negative and lens flare delirium. It’s a hell of a journey, taking us from, if not Loachian realism, then at least a recognizable domestic world, through increasing levels of stylised bonkers-ness to end up in the ballpark of spiritual transcendence. The latter fight scenes are of the typically gravity-defying, physics-denying kind, which would later be found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its ilk. Wang and Shi leap from forest floor to treetop and treetop to bad guy, dodging daggers along the way, each scene as delineated by setting and style as the musical numbers in a Gene Kelly flick. It’s fucking cinema, baby, and if you don’t get a jolt of sheer delight from such exuberant nonsense then I pity you.
For all that, it’s not flawless. The tonal shifts are jarring in places, the Scooby gang business of the haunted fort sits uneasily in the same film as the darker past, with its betrayal, torture and murder. And the third act feels like a sequel, of sorts, to the tale we have become invested in. It’s energetic and enthralling stuff, but sidelines characters we know to focus on, the Abbot, who’s pretty much the concept of Deus Ex Machina in person, stepping in to wrap things up where Gu, Wang and Shi have failed. These are quibbles; A Touch of Zen’s status as a classic is thoroughly deserved, it’s a wonderful thing, and looks and sounds fantastic in this Masters of Cinema restoration.
Bonuses include a booklet (including a vintage interview, Hu’s notes on the film from the Cannes 75 press kit, and the original short story that inspired the film), a documentary on King Hu’s cursed and blessed career and a great video essay on the film by David Cairns.
Watch the trailer: