A bonafide classic of the Wuxia genre, finally restored to a state worth its status…
Decades after its initial release, A Touch of Zen still remains a testament to the art of the action film. Meticulously crafted, beautifully shot and embedded in a spiritual and Buddhist thematic, it is King Hu’s one and only masterpiece.
Released more than 40 years ago, A Touch of Zen (1971, King Hu) was made during an era of excitement and reform in Hong Kong cinema. It was just before the ‘kung fu craze’ would hit the Western market and at a time when the first cracks in Run Run Shaw’s dominance began to appear. Soon, audiences would crave for more modern – and cheaply made – action flicks, and Golden Harvest was founded just a year before in order to supply the masses with more contemporary and violent movies. In many ways, director King Hu was a true old-timer. Unlike the beloved Golden Harvest-star Bruce Lee, Hu was an heir of the old industrial filmmaking enterprise and the Shaw Brothers. As a beginning director, he made fame with Come Drink With Me (1966) under the auspices of Run Run Shaw and single-handedly revitalized the Wuxia (swordplay) film. When he traded Hong Kong for Taiwan, though, he quickly became a trademark of its own. His first Taiwan-made film, Dragon Gate Inn (1967) broke box-office records and remains a cult-classic of the genre. But the apotheosis of his talent has then yet to be made. It took him no less than three years, but A Touch of Zen turned out to be Hu’s masterpiece. Now that there’s a new 4K restoration out there, it seems only fitting to revisit this supernatural tale of personal revenge.
The plot is rather straightforward and only an excuse for Hu to develop several interesting themes in the background. A stranger, Miss Yang (played by Feng Hsu), arrives in town and becomes Ku’s new neighbor. Ku (played by Chun Shih) is a skilled painter and dutiful son to his strict mother, but is infantile and lacks ambition. The fact that Yang chooses a supposedly haunted fort as her new home peeks Ku’s interest and eventually the two, after some interference of Ku’s mother, become short-time lovers. Not much later, though, it becomes clear that there’s much more to Miss Yang than we thought. Ever since her father was brutally murdered by Eunuch Wei, a shady official who is determined to liquidate the whole Yang bloodline, she lives in fear and hides for the imperial Chinese army. While in most other movies this will propel the true masculine hero to come to the foreground, Hu traditionally favored women warriors. Unsurprisingly, then, Yang is not exactly your typical damsel in distress: proficient with the sword and in martial arts, she’s arguably the most menacing character in the film. Together with Ku, they fight of the armed forces of the corrupt forces of the East Chamber as the body count of this film rises to staggering heights.
From the onset of the now famous opening sequence – a spider devouring his prey trapped in the predator’s web as a metaphor for what’s to come – it is clear that this new edition of Touch of Zen is worth your every penny. The 4K restoration, solely financed by the lead actress Feng Hsu, was completed at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and is simply impeccable: the colourful landscapes and superb cinematography are beautifully rendered and the quick inserts of flying swordsmen are crystal sharp. The restoration proves its worth especially during several sequences taking place in the night time which were hitherto so blurry to the point that all the action became incomprehensible.
It is puzzling that arguably the best shot swordplay film ever made only now received a release worthy of its status. After all, it did won the Grand Prix for superior technique at the Cannes film festival of 1975. This was not without reason: cinematographer Hui-Ying Hua, who also shot Dragon Gate Inn (1967), and director King Hu deliver some stunning images of smoke-filled forts, claustrophobic and dark interiors and disorienting forests, always hinting at some impending and unavoidable doom that will await our protagonists. It is one of the few films of the genre that embraces negative space and shadows, resulting in some highly expressive shots. Every frame is as beautifully composited as any film of Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi and – in some ways – proves to be even superior to the work of these two Japanese masters. Especially the hyperkinetic but highly efficient editing during all fighting sequences steals the show.
Underneath the technical mastery, King Hu shows a remarkable talent in tempo and tonality. Running for almost 3 hours, Touch of Zen smoothly switches from ghost story to action-adventure before finally settling for the spiritual action film. In many ways, it is in this last stage that the film truly excels. While there’s plenty to enjoy in the first two hours, King Hu – claiming to be uninterested in combat techniques as such – successfully turns the adventurous and almost frivolous revenge story into an operatic Buddhist parable.
This switch is not an abrupt stylistic and thematic break, but merely the accumulation of efficient storytelling techniques. Slowly but surely, there’s a dark and morally conflicted undertone brooding under all sequences as the film develops. When Ku witnesses how successful his plan was to lure enemy soldiers in an elaborate and deadly scheme, he initially bursts out in laughter and happily strolls through the compound, which is littered with dead bodies. Not much later, when he realizes the grave human cost of combat, his eyes express terror instead of joy. He runs away from the compound in an attempt to flee from his responsibility, but he stumbles upon one corpse after the next. Quick and bloody inserts of the fallen soldiers accompany the unsettling close-ups of Ku’s anxiety-filled expression. It is during these sequences that this picture separates itself from any other film in the genre.
And even then the best has yet to come. Indeed, the last half hour feels more meticulously crafted and is nothing less than a masterclass in cinematography and sound design as a haunting choir accompanies an exhausting fight between good and evil. Surprisingly for a picture with spectacular fight sequences as its most prominent selling point, the film finally carries a strong anti-violence message in the end. It is in these last moments that Hu’s stamp is stronger than at any point in the film, but it also ties all the thematic undertones neatly together while delivering awe-inspiring images. Admittedly, it is unlikely that we’d speak of Touch of Zen like we do today without the grandeur of its final moments. Yet, its heavy-handedness would be considered over-the-top today and most probably would be laughed at by anyone unfamiliar with the local traditions Hu draws upon. Anyone open to the emotional directness of Hong Kong cinema, though, is in for a treat and will be awarded with one of the most memorable finales in the history of cinema.
A Touch of Zen seeks no compromise: it is not only a truly entertaining piece of filmmaking on a technical and storytelling level, but it’s equally loaded with symbolism and invites the viewer for interpretation. It is an art film, awarded by the members of the Cannes film festival, but it’s also a straightforward and beautifully crafted tale in its own right and an international crowd-pleaser. Watching Hu’s grandiose ode to the wuxia genre, you realize it was a farewell letter to the old days of yore. Although Hu returned to the genre a few times after Touch of Zen, he would never enjoy the financial backing he once had. And although we at easternKicks are equally fond of all those cheesy male melodrama’s of the 80’s, the pompous and tongue-in-cheek flicks of the 90’s and the slick Johhnie To productions of the 2000’s, we have to admit: they don’t make them like this anymore.
A Touch of Zen as a available on Limited Edition (to 2000 copies) 3-disc UK Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD from Masters Of Cinema (Eureka Entertainment). We recently spoke to Bede Cheng of L’Immagine Ritrovata Asia about the restoration.
Home media details
Distributor: Masters Of Cinema / Eureka Entertainment (UK)
Edition: Limited Edition 3-Disc Dual Format (2016)
Bringing the newly restored 4K edition to Blu-ray, it finally feels like the Masters of Cinema edition gives King Hu’s classic A Touch Of Zen the treatment its so desperately deserved for well over a decade. If I have any reservations about this transfer, it’s only that – like many Blu-ray versions – the contrast is just a bit too punchy. The picture is crisp and vibrant, but some of the detail seems lost again because the contrast is too strong.
The disc includes a select scene commentary by critic Tony Rayns, newly translated English subtitles, and trailer. The limited edition bonus disc includes French-produced documentary King Hu 1932-1997, an informative look at the directors work including interviews with several cast and crew members such as Yueh Hua (Come Drink With Me) and Shih Jun (A Touch Of Zen, Dragon Inn). Perhaps the only problem is that at 47 minutes, it’s just too short! Also included is Golden Blood, a new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns.
36 page booklet including Tony Rayns’ 1975 interview with King Hu, the original short story the film is based on, the eight characteristics of “the swordswoman” in King Hu’s films and much more.
This 3-disc edition is limited to 2000 copies. The slipcase, which seems to becoming popular again, really adds very little, and I can’t help but think that Eureka missed a trick not issuing a Steelbook using special artwork created just for that edition, but hell – we’re just glad to have the film in a condition we can properly enjoy!
(Andrew Heskins, managing editor)