A Touch of Zen

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August 7, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

I suspect that for many in the West, Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was their introduction to the wuxia—or Chinese martial arts—film genre. It would probably shock many to know that wuxia—which is a combination of “wu” or “martial/military” and “xia” meaning “honorable”—has its roots in Chinese literature that goes back to 200-300 BC. If we leap forward to the 20th Century, however, wuxia had what many consider its golden age between the 60s and 80s. When I first encountered the genre as a teenager (through Tsui Hark’s superb Once Upon a Time in China trilogy—which is now a quintet) I was surprised that the genre was not more popular here. It has all of the elements that make up the best westerns or samurai films, but with a heightened aesthetic sensibility and emphasis on elaborately choreographed fights.

Within the genre, King Hu is definitely one of its legendary figures. His 1966 Come Drink With Me was his first major success with its blend of samurai film tradition, Western editing techniques and Chinese aesthetics which borrowed from music and opera. 1967’s Dragon Gate Inn proved an even bigger success, becoming a cult classic. Over the years it has inspired countless films: Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers was dedicated to it and Tsai Ming-liang chose it for his meditation on the death of the magic behind the theater-going experience with Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Many consider A Touch of Zen_—along with its sequels, _Raining in the Mountains and _Legend of the Mountains_—Hu’s crowning achievement, even winning an award for technical achievement at the ’75 Cannes Festival and being the lone Hu film on the Theyshootpictures.com list of the 1000 Greatest films (currently at #565).

Set during the Ming Dynasty, A Touch of Zen stars Shih Jun as Ku Shen Chai, a scholar and portrait painter, who lives a quiet life with his mother at the supposedly haunted house in the Ching Liu estate. Ku’s mother is constantly chiding him for not being more ambitious in trying to pass a standard exam and get on a political board, and for not getting married even though he’s over thirty. A young woman named Yang (Hsu Feng) has recently moved in, and Ku’s mother looks to her as a possible bride for her son. One day a stranger named Ouyang Yin appears and requests to have his portrait painted. But his mysterious actions lead Ku to a plot devised by the corrupt Eunuch Wei to trap and kill Yang (and the rest of her family) before they can uncover his plot against the Emperor. Along with the supposedly blind Shih (Bai Ying), Ku and Yang team up to defeat their pursuers.

At least two things are most immediately noticeable about this film; the first is its length, which makes it an unusual epic within the wuxia genre; the second is that, despite it being a wuxia film, Hu handles the proceedings with an incredible patience and cinematic sophistication. The first fight doesn’t occur until well after an hour has gone by. Until then Hu has taken his time carefully developing the characters, relationships, setting and mystery, all the while establishing a near metaphysical tone that will stay with the film throughout its length. That tone is perhaps most strongly enforced by Hu’s cinematography that has an uncanny eye for nature and for painterly depictions of the crumbling estate and the organic, pastoral beauty surrounding it. When the wuxia battles do take place, they are some of the most lyrical and spellbinding ever filmed. While Hu doesn’t have the technological luxuries of later directors like Zhang Yimou or Ang Lee, what he has is an ability to use editing and camera movement like a wizard conducting an orchestra, using the camera as both a wand and baton. When it all comes together, the fights have a quality that is pure music, and pure magic. While Ang Lee may have been able to show his heroes gliding across the screen on wires, Hu is able to achieve the same effect by showing feet lightly touching objects and then immediately cutting to a shot of the characters soaring in the air.

Every fight sequence is choreographed with an eye for beauty above all—fights that are more like ballet than anything else. Each one has a unique quality, like opera arias that shift between the recitatives of the drama, to the arias of the fights that change between characters or numbers, from duets to trios to octets to full on choral movements. A Touch of Zen’s greatest choral movement is by far the “Ghost Trap” sequence in which Ku devises an ingenious plan to lure the East Chamber guards, who far outnumber his group, into the “haunted” ruins of their estate. He uses their fear and superstition of ghosts to surprise them, allowing their confusion to be their downfall. But if A Touch of Zen is a classic of the genre it’s as much because of its balance between character, drama and Buddhist philosophy as its fights. Ku especially has a remarkable character arc in which he transforms from the timid, apathetic scholar to an intellectual general who plots the downfall of his pursuers. He also transforms into a love-struck puppy after meeting Yang and spends the last section of the film pursuing her, even after she leaves for the monastery. While most of the drama is quite effective up until the Ghost Trap, afterward it feels as if an episode was rather tacked on to find an ending and the film never quite recovers when it loses track of the Ku/Yang storyline.

Beyond the battles, characters and drama, A Touch of Zen is a film with an unusual sensibility toward Buddhist philosophy, as can be seen through the monks such as the powerful Abbot Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) who haunts the local forests like its protective spirits. Hu constantly photographs Hui framed by the sun, using lens flares or diffused sun rays streaming through the trees to suggest enlightenment. Through Hui, King Hu seems to be reflecting on the violent nature of humanity, if not the film itself. Hu also must be applauded for the film’s ending, which closes on an extremely ambiguous note that is quite open-ended and provocative—a real rarity for this genre.

Unfortunately A Touch of Zen is given an extremely poor representation on DVD. The version I watched was a pitiful transfer with pixels big enough to drive semi-trucks through and an incredible lack of resolution, especially in dark scenes. Much of The Ghost Trap’s greatness is lost in the transfer’s lack of shadow detail to the point that many sequences seem like they’re taking place in pure blackness. I suspect that with a better print (Criterion? Blu-ray? Anyone?) I may be even more impressed with the film than I am now.

Ultimately, A Touch of Zen may represent a pinnacle of a genre that is unjustly ignored in the west. For those wondering where to go after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or maybe after the wuxia films of Zhang Yimou, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better route than King Hu’s greatest films. A Touch of Zen is undoubtedly wuxia at its best, combining the musicality of the fight scenes with the magic of Hu’s editing and cinematography and a genuine “touch of Zen” that adds an invaluable philosophical and metaphysical level to a film that was already brimming with power and beauty.

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