Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih
Director: King Hu
Modern example of the period martial arts dramas known as wuxia – The Assassin, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers – all pay homage to the films of King Hu, especially this mammoth 3-hour offering from 1971. And the debt extends not just to its set-pieces and imagery either – the bamboo forests, the tree-top battles, the balletic trampoline work – but also to the elevated tone, panoramic cinematography and otherworldly feeling which have become part of the DNA of the genre.
The story concerns a remote town which suddenly fills up with people who aren’t what they seem – among them, a blind beggar, a secretive herbalist and a mysterious girl living in the ruins of a fort – and who turn out to be either secret agents or the fugitives they’re chasing, family and supporters of a high official brought low by a crooked rival. All of which we learn through the eye of Ku, an unambitious calligrapher who is slowly drawn into the intrigue.
Very slowly – but because A Touch of Zen is a film that likes to take its time. The early sections deliver slow-burning chills as Ku becomes aware that something is going on in the fort (the primary location for the first half of the movie, it’s a palpably eerie place, a triumph of large scale set-building which Hu left standing for a year before primary shooting until it was suitably overgrown with magnificent feathery reeds), and it’s not until the 50-minute mark that we get the first proper fight and some clear idea of what is going on. After that the film is studded with visually stunning ruckuses, but it’s the long-stretched-out quiet moments in-between that linger most in the memory.
Another of Hu’s valuable contributions to the wuxia genre was the invention of the kind of kickass, sword-wielding heroines who make your average James Bond femme fatale look like a total drip. Here there’s another fine example of the type in the form of Yang, daughter of the wrongfully disgraced high official, who recounts her backstory while calmly forging a brace of throwing darts for the decimation of her enemies. As the film progresses, she and her doughty sidekicks are endowed with a poised, graceful quality that makes them seem more like supernatural spirits that earthly folk, a sign of things to come as the story grows ever more strange and mystical.
If you’re dipping your toe into vintage wuxia for the first time, Hu’s previous film Dragon Inn (also available from Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label) is probably a slightly more accessible starting point, but, leisurely and dreamlike as it is, A Touch of Zen shows the genre at full stretch. 8/10
Another strong transfer, up to the standard of Dragon Inn. In the close-ups you can literally count the hairs on Ku’s head, the dusky colours of the vintage film stock come across very attractively, and the atmospheric scenes in the fort have a lovely bloom. Even the darker interior scenes, such as those inside Ku’s house, are surprisingly crisp. 9/10
Go-to expert on Eastern cinema Tony Rayns provides an excellent audio commentary for five (long) scenes from the movie. He talks about the film’s source material and its Daoist and Buddhist themes, and serves up a detailed bio of the director. ~ A well-made 48 min featurette on King Hu, which as well as providing lots of welcome info about the director offers fascinating insights into the Hong Kong movie scene. ~ Sharply observed 17-min video essay by David Cairns. 10/10