by Arpad Okay. This is RETROGRADING, where we know better than to mess with monks when martial arts are involved.
THE FILM: A Touch of Zen
THE YEAR: 1971. King Hu had left Shaw Brothers and Hong Kong for the creative freedom of his own Taiwanese production company, Union Film. Free from colonial oversight, Hu further integrated Japanese outlaw chanbara into Chinese wuxia chivalry. The warrior pariah who is compelled to protect the people from ruthless royal guards is a criticism of contemporary institutional corruption, if you know where to look. A Touch of Zen. King Hu makes poetry out of protest.
THE SPECS: Directed by King Hu; written by King Hu, based on a story from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Song-ling; produced by Sha Yung-fong; starring Shih Chun, Hsu Feng, Tien Peng, and Roy Chiao; distributed by Union Film.
THE MAKE: Once, wuxia films (the genre of flying fists and period aesthetics) were a kind of romantic fantasy, light on both action sequences and audiences in attendance. Then came King Hu. Samurai blew up the Hong Kong box office, which led to more serious stories in Chinese swordfighting cinema, romanticizing violence and balance brought by the blade. Labor unrest and the response of the British colonial police state drove Hu to Taiwan, where he could make films talking shit on the imperialism of the day with Ming Dynasty Eastern Depot antagonists. In Come Drink with Me, Hu brought opera and heroine protagonists to wuxia, and in Dragon Inn he pushed actors’ abilities beyond reality with new editing and filmmaking techniques. Hu’s was the first film to have a fight choreographer! A Touch of Zen was something new.
Hu’s screenplay set an artist named Gu (Shih Chun) as the wuxia hero, a knight-errant utterly inefficient at physical combat. An undercover agent of the barbarous Eastern Depot secret police (Tien Peng) uses Gu’s portrait studio to spy on the town, searching for a fugitive: the mysterious Yang Hui-zen (Hsu Feng). Miss Yang is hiding at the same abandoned fort-turned-squat Gu and his mother reside in; she’s part of a team of impossibly martially powered xia fighters that are the typical protagonists in these movies—when other people direct them. A death sentence (or worse) is their punishment for exposing police corruption within the Depot. Gu takes the side of the rebels instead of the state.
Executing Hu’s vision meant his total immersion in the filmmaking process during a time when wuxia production was riddled with indifferent directors phoning in their responsibilities. I don’t think Hu would settle for only making a bland genre film and a paycheck. A Touch of Zen started production the year after Dragon Inn was released, and took four years to film and finish. On location in the Taroko Gorge, or sets that would make Hollywood blush, he was in the writers’ room for pre- and the editor’s room for post-production. Hu even played on his own films: Chun as Gu, following his role as combat master Hsiao in Dragon Inn was casting against type, like Minoru Chiaki going from one of the seven Seven Samurai to one of the peasant deserters whose fate frames The Hidden Fortress. Hu’s films were magnificent because he put the work in to push the envelope.
Hu’s vision was impossible feats as opera. His take on fight cinematography, to find a spot to strike, react in time with a dodge or block, turns lightning into chess and back again. A violent dance between the tight, quick editing of impossible action sequences and uncut shots of actual ballet. The rhythm sways, from a coryphée with sword held above head and their other arm drawn out before them, in a balanced pose awaiting their opponent’s attack (fight choreography by Beijing Opera actor Han Ying-chieh), to the swift and furious literal film cuts of Zen-style, supernaturally skilled swordplay (Hu edited the film with Wing Chin-chen). The archer trying to take a shot looks up, cut to a low shot of bamboo trees shaking, cut to one of the guards landing a flying jump that has carried them yards across the forest floor in between the frames. Hu and Chin-chen line up the series of shots so that the action occurs in the audience’s mind as much as on screen. Hu and Ying-chieh make what the camera captures iconic.
THE REVIEW: What separates something from being dated and being timeless? Everything about this movie feels like it’s come out of the past. The costumes, theatrical acting, real stunts, the pacing and cuts and camerawork, the very grain of the film stock all place A Touch of Zen within visual yesteryear. It can read campy but it’s constructed, ornate. Instead of smiling from a joke the buzz is being awestruck by the skills of a warrior whose mastery of their craft, combined with Zen editing, the word is supernatural.
A Touch of Zen feels like more than one movie, though at 180 minutes it has the time to be. It starts out as a spy film, flipped. Hu detested the ubiquity of 007 films in the 60s, which he saw as glorifying the equivalent of an agent of the Gestapo, given the Crown’s treatment of workers in Hong Kong during the same period. Gu makes a sublime counterpoint to James Bond. He won’t stop making art to get a real (government) job, but he will shag ass to undermine the secret police and help a fellow squatter. The middle movie is Romance, the dark fairy tale that made Miss Yang who she is now. Her family’s execution, her monastic training. The final act is an action movie, seeing Yang, Gu, and all the other conspirators stand against the secret police and then the armed forces proper.
The end is also a series of hard truths. Gu’s swift turn from pride at orchestrating the team’s self defense to self-loathing for taking so many lives, that’s just the start of reality coming crashing back into a movie where monks can bound across the leaf of a fern without bending it. As if Gu and Yang’s victory didn’t already feel sufficiently empty, every killer bureaucrat’s job position is filled as soon as they fall on the battlefield. The Abbot of the monastery (Roy Chiao), the living metaphor for righteousness, is the only one with the power to go one-on-one against totalitarianism. The cold-bloodedness of the Information Retrieval Department in Brazil fighting the open palm punch power of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow.
The shot count in A Touch of Zen is totally unhinged. All of the spying in the beginning is a constant intercutting of chase and confirmation. Hu will never say what he can show: we watch the observer snooping, then see their comprehension with a shot of their face. The endless cuts merge seamlessly into combat sequences by readjusting speed. Now an understanding look is a part of the dance. The chase becomes quicker. Bare hand grabs a sword before we can see it land the blow, a dagger is snatched from the air and flung back, the fighting on film is cut so it plays at a speed faster than mortals are capable of reaching. The consistency in the telling—the flavor of the editing—ties together all the different stories and factors into a single narrator’s voice. King Hu.
Dragon Inn is over in 111 minutes and it rules. The magical warriors pitted against fascism are in there, as is the editing that makes impossible ideas occur in the camera frame. So why am I writing about A Touch of Zen? The time it takes to tell a larger story about violence, power, and meaning is worth it. The layer of mystery you have to parse is colossally rewarding. It is a breathtakingly beautiful film in what it shows and in what it wishes to say. Hu’s techniques are powerful on par with the might of holy monk flying fists. A Touch of Zen is everything.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? A Touch of Zen defined the electrifying new cinema vocabulary of its time, a vision of film where the action is art.