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1971’s A Touch of Zen is regarded as one of the most important movies in the wuxia genre – being a major influence on the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero. It has been resorted by the Taiwan Film Institute and the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture and re-released as a part of the Masters of Cinema series in the UK.
Gu Shenchai (Chun Shih) is an unambitious artist and wantabe scholar living near the ruins of an old fort that is believed to be haunted. He lives with mother who is putting pressure on him to find a wife and start a career in the civil service. But Gu is forced to help a young woman, Yang Huiching (Feng Hsu), who has been hiding in the ruins of the fort and is the target of a corrupt official. Gu has to use his knowledge to compliment Yang’s fighting ability to find a way to defeat the forces that outnumber them.
A Touch of Zen was written and directed by King Hu who made another seminal work in the wuxia genre, Dragon Inn. Dragon Inn was also re-released as a part of the Masters of Cinema series and was a fun martial arts movie in the vein of a western. With A Touch of Zen he tries to elevate the genre beyond the stereotype of being nothing but swordplay. A Touch of Zen is a three-hour long epic that incorporate ideas of Eastern philosophy and having a sobering, artist ending. The movie was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and won the Technical Grand Prize.
A Touch of Zen is a movie with a slow build-up – it takes nearly an hour for the first fight scene to appear. The first hour focuses on Gu as he tries to befriend Yang and find out what Ouyang (Tien Peng) is up to; it expands into a more traditional martial arts movie where there are plenty of action sequences before taking a surreal, supernatural turn for the final act.
Gu is made out to be a learned man who is able to quote Confucius but he is an outsider to all the political turmoil and the only one in the group who does not know how to fight. He has to use his brains and knowledge of military strategy to overcome the numbers of soldiers against them. The group has to use the old fort, send rumors that ghosts inhabit the place and then they have to set up traps to achieve this. This portion of the movie makes A Touch of Zen similar to Seven Samurai, Musa and Red Cliff, where a small number of highly trained warriors have to come up with inventive means to win the battle.
Like Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen has a tough lady character, this time the female fighter is the lead badass, not just the sidekick. Yang was a made out to be a strong martial artist, holding her own against male rivals. But she is also a bloodthirsty woman in her quest for vengeance.
The action is reasonable for the most part. It is fairly standard stuff for a modern audience. There are much better fight scenes in Dragon Inn. But the movie was the prototype for modern wuxia movies and fans can see the influences on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. There are moments big and small that are referenced in the famous movies, from a sword being thrown to a wall where it’s used as a spring to the fight in the bamboo forest, being very similar to the mid-film fight sequence in House of Flying Daggers.
The restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute is fantastic. Compared to Dragon Inn which was set in arid locations, A Touch of Zen is a bright, vibrant movie set in the forests and mountains and the cinematography shows the beauty of Taiwan as mist comes from the mountains. The costumes worn by many of the characters like the soldiers, officers and the monk are colorful and pop on the screen. Except for the fake looking swords used in the fight scenes, the Blu-ray version of A Touch of Zen makes the movie look like it was filmed recently – not 1968.
A Touch of Zen is certainly a movie for fans of martial arts and Asian cinema. It is a movie that attempts to be grander and more meaningful than that expected from the genre. It is a must see for fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. But more causal audiences are likely to be turned off by the movies slow set-up and surreal ending.
Special Features: The 3-Disc re-release comes with a documentary about director King Hu, a commentary and trailer, a video essay from filmmaker/critic David Cairns and a booklet featuring an interview with King Hu.