King Hu’s A Touch of Zen

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Hailed as one of the biggest epics of the wuxia genre, “A Touch of Zen” is a true masterpiece of the category that stands apart particularly due to its technical prowess and high symbolism. The script is based on a short story titled “The Magnanimous Girl” by Pu Songling that was published in 1679.

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Gu is a talented painter and scholar who still lives with his mother, who worries about him being unambitious, unmarried and his decline to apply for a civil servant position. Eventually, a young girl named Yang and her mother settle in an abandoned house nearby, which everybody considers haunted. Gu’s mother however, does not seem at all bothered by the fact and she proceeds in an effort to arrange a marriage between Gu and Yang. The girl declines but she and Gu strike a peculiar friendship, after she explains that she and her mother are fugitives, running away from the corrupt eunuch Wei, who had her father assassinated for learning of his foul tactics and is set on killing the whole family. Moreover, something that has been long inactive seems to wake inside Gu after he spends the night at Yang’s house, that transforms him into a cunning and ingenious individual, who subsequently devises a plan to conquer their rivals by exploiting the supposedly haunted ruins of the area.

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King Hu directed a film that stands apart from the plethora of wuxia titles for a number of reasons, apart from the fact that it is a Taiwanese production instead of a Hong Kong one, as was the rule with the genre. The first one is that the script does not solely exist to provide a background for the action, but it is elaborately written and includes interwoven stories, conspiracies, treacheries, and in-depth analysis of the characters and the circumstances of the era. In that aspect, the first action scene does not take place for about 50 minutes in the film, because Hu wanted to present the story and the characters adequately. The second one is that the main character, Gu, does not fight at all and even remains a wimp for the biggest part of the film. The third one is that apart from the well-depicted interiors, the film also entails wonderful outside shots (in contrast to the similar productions by Shaw Brothers, that focused on the depiction of the interiors but ignored the outside ), with the environment and the character’s interaction in it, being one of the points of excellence. The fourth one is that Hu incorporated a number of symbolisms, as is the case with the spider webs that appear to symbolize Gu’s entanglement with Yang’s case and the fact that Wei wants to trap the last member of Yang’s family, as a spider does with its preys. Lastly, he also included the idea of Zen in the story, a task quite difficult, since Zen is perceived as something that cannot be described, only felt and intuited.

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However, the aforementioned does not mean that the action is scarce. To the contrary, there are many and long battles, all of whom are artfully choreographed and include some of the most impressive ones ever presented in the genre. Especially the one in the ruins and the two in the woods are magnificent, and along with the script and the characters comprise the main reasons that “A Touch of Zen” is considered the precursor of films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers”.

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Shin Jun is great in the role of Gu, with his metamorphosis from a timid, unambitious man to a cunning strategist who enjoys the pain of his enemies, being probably the best acting element of the film. Hsu Feng as Yang is also quite good as the stressful, hunted daughte,r and Roy Chiao steals the show at times, as Abbot Hui Yuan, who gave shelter to Yang for a time before she arrived in Gu’s town. The battles he appears in are magnificent, and he even manages to appear as the personification of serenity, despite the dramatic events occurring all around him, in a true Zen fashion. In a trivial sort of information, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan also appear in small, unaccredited roles in the film, although I could not find the second (If anyone could help with this I would be grateful).

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Sammo Hung in the left

The editing is also very skillful, particularly in the flashback scenes, which are presented in a very understandable way, and the soundtrack and overall music accompany the various scenes elaborately. The sole technical fault I found is that there are some scenes where the lighting is inadequate, thus making the tracking of what is happening a difficult task. This is but a small glitch though, in a film whose evident technical prowess amounted in the Technical Grand Prize and a nomination for the Palme d’Or, from the Cannes Film Festival.

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The film was initially screened in two parts in 1970 and 1971. However,  the Ministry of Culture commissioned it’s restoration to Taiwan Film Institute in 2014, as part of the “Taiwan Film Classics Digital Restoration and Value-Adding Project”, an effort that was solely sponsored by Hsu Feng, who left behind her acting career in the 80’s to become an equally successful producer.

The outcome is a 3-hour epic that is now presented in a three-disc limited edition by Eureka Entertainment as part of the Masters of Cinema series. The edition includes a gorgeous 1080p transfer of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD, newly translated English subtitles, select scene commentary by critic and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, “King Hu 1932-1997”, a 47-minute documentary on the director featuring interviews with colleagues, collaborators and historians, “Golden Blood”, a new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, and the trailer. Furthermore, the packaging includes a 36-PAGE BOOKLET featuring Hu’s director statement from the Cannes film festival, a 1975 interview with King Hu by Tony Rayns, the original short story the film is based on, the eight characteristics of ”the swordswoman” in King Hu’s films, and archival images.