"A Touch of Zen": King Hu’s Masterful Concoction of Cinematic Flavors

Exploring the genre-defying martial arts masterpiece the release in theatres of a new restoration.
Jeremy Carr

Widely and rightly regarded as not only one of the finest martial arts films ever made, but one of the greatest works in of all Chinese cinema, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, 1971) is most often lauded for its extraordinary fight sequences. Why the film is so exceptional, however, is that as great as these fight scenes are (and they are spectacular), they may not even be the best part of the movie. With 180 minutes to work with in its complete uncut version, which will screen in a new 4K restoration at Film Forum April 22 through May 5, Hu launches A Touch of Zen above most of its genre, above even his own impressive output, amplifying the essentials of the martial arts film while infusing it with other cinematic ingredients. 

The first shot of A Touch of Zen is of a spider moving in on its cobweb-entangled prey. It is an image instinctively associated with the horror film, and this illustrative correlation, along with the continuing depiction of insects lured and ensnared, foreshadows a key section of the film, one that plays out in a comparable trapping fashion and also highlights A Touch of Zen’s larger proclivity toward generic twisting and turning. If this opening resembles the horror film in its unsettling iconography, the film next veers into the territory of a mystery or thriller. Gu Zhengzhai (Shi Jun), a modest artist who works writing letters and painting scrolls, has lived in the film’s village setting his whole life and is perceptive to new faces. Suddenly, there are two. There is first the enigmatic Ouyang Nian (Tian Peng), who arrives in town ostensibly seeking a portrait. His strange behavior suggests he is looking for someone, yet minutes later, he too seems to be absconding from indefinite individuals. Ouyang probes Gu about a haunted fort, which, sure enough, Gu and his mother live next to (but it is only haunted to those who believe in ghosts, assures the genial artist).

Gu more or less balks at this supernatural belief, but armed with some Taoist exorcism spells, he still embarks on a somewhat juvenile Scooby-Doo investigation. This lighthearted inquiry into the fort’s paranormal potential is just one of several humorous moments in the early portion of A Touch of Zen, which hits a series of comedic notes to further refocus the film’s apparent categorization. As a further example, see also Gu’s bumbling conduct as he stands mouth agape upon first meeting Yang Huizen (Xu Feng), the region’s second unfamiliar face of note and the previously deserted fort’s apparently new inhabitant.

Ouyang soon shows up at Gu’s house, and through a series of revelations, Gu and the viewer discover that nothing about this basic arrangement is at it appears. Ouyang is actually an agent operating on behalf of an Eastern Group régime, and he is there to find and capture Yang, in reality the noble fugitive daughter of a man who offended the venerable Eunuch Wei. Her entire family has been condemned to death (recalling a similar situation in Hu’s Dragon Inn [1967]), but she managed to escape with the aid of General Shi (Bai Ying) and General Lu (Xue Han), both of whom have also adopted guises in order to secure the young woman’s safety.

Set within the era of the tumultuous Ming Dynasty, A Touch of Zen builds upon the context of period-specific intrigue, scandal, and renegade violence. While similar plots had already been incorporated by Hu in his earlier Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn, in those films, the preliminary political setup was in many ways a pretense for the ensuing action, its true relevancy steadily subsiding as the films move along. Here, the eunuch affront that gets the ball rolling not only remains a key motivator throughout the three-hour story, but the reiterations of its consequences are more organically incorporated into the film as a whole. As far as the overall storyline of A Touch of Zen, the politics are not merely an incidental flashpoint to instigate the attacks, but remain codependent on the resulting action.  

The intermittent government ramifications add yet another dimension to what has already shaped up to be a multileveled narrative and is part of why A Touch of Zen is such an extraordinarily complex film. With each passing sequence, the movie dabbles in the hallmarks of diverse genres—drama, horror, comedy, mystery—all the while refreshing itself, to borrow a phrase from scholar David Cairns, and supplementing its more traditional wuxia elements.

Before A Touch of Zen moves forward with the now evident concern of protecting Yang from the approaching Eastern Group forces, it again briefly diverts into a new tonal territory, this time into a rather hasty, unorthodox romance. Gu’s cantankerous mother (Zhang Bingyu) routinely puts her son down: he has no professional ambition, no money, and no prospect for female companionship. Again contributing to the film’s early humor, she also scolds him as if he were a child, chiding him for being out late and for getting his clothes dirty. Of course, she is also wont to play matchmaker, and with the sudden appearance of new neighbor Yang, it seems the stars have fortuitously aligned. One romantic evening, an evening still tinged with an undercurrent of unease, the courtship between Yang and Gu (such as it has been) is consummated. The next day, however, as the more important concern of Yang’s protection reemerges, the presumably established romance recedes. 

This is a contrarian relationship anyway. Gu is an affable and generally grounded Everyman and Yang is a seductive, secretive, and remote outsider, one who superbly embodies the dominant martialheroine. Still, though Gu is seen as basically inept and in over his head (a far cry from the confident swagger and instantly evident skill Shi Jun conveys as Xiao in Dragon Inn), he is nevertheless eager to help. While he and Yang share differing methodologies, and she surely has her doubts about his competence, he wisely proposes an alternative to her initial plan. She intended to ambush Eastern Group Commander Men Da (Wang Rui) and his soldiers en route to the village. Gu, bolstered by his knowledge of the area, proposes that a trap could instead be sprung at the fort, one that would take advantage of the persistent rumors of its haunting (and echo the opening entrapment of the film).

A self-proclaimed student of military strategy, Gu’s thoughtful scheme, in lieu of a headlong assault, mirrors the deliberate narrative of A Touch of Zen itself, which takes its time and defies expectations in terms of conventionally expedient martial arts progression. Several minutes go by before a person is first seen in the film, and more time passes before anyone speaks; long passages contain no dialogue—instead the expressive score chimes in to set the tone—and even the first fight does not occur until 56 minutes into the picture.

A roster of 200 men gives the encroaching militia a personnel advantage, but with the right maneuvering, it could be possible to “sap their morale.” With Gu’s mother enlisted to spread the word about the haunted fort (in a sequence partially shown in six-frame split-screen), the talk makes its way to the combatants. Men Da dismisses the notion, but it soon works on him as well as his subordinates. He may be the peak villain, but just as Gu had an unexpected plot fall into his lap, the commander likewise stumbles into something which he has no familiarity with—“I'll keep watch here,” he anxiously says at one point, only too eager to send his minions off to investigate the ghostly happenings while he fearfully sits tight.

This is a tremendously amusing premise, and as Gu, Yang, and the others on the home front manipulate the surrounding area, they create a fusion of The Innocents (1961) and Home Alone (1990), setting up faux supernatural trickery and various obstacles to thwart the soldiers—physically and psychologically. The assault is built on innovative combat devices like catapults and mechanical multi-arrow slings, but it is likewise based around the art of deception, a recurrent theme of A Touch of Zen. From the false identities of Yang and her protectors, to the illusory populace crafted around the fort’s supposed haunting and the film’s conclusion where a character is controlled by distorted visions, Hu works into the tale a variety of scenarios where things are not what they seem and those involved are affected accordingly.

In any case, the ploy is effective, and it would seem this is where A Touch of Zen could reasonably conclude. But instead, the film has a somewhat detached 45-minute coda that follows Gu in search of Yang, who had departed after the nocturnal battle at the fort. For Gu, the romance was not fleeting, and as he soon discovers, there is indeed a connection that leaves he and Yang bonded forever. Additionally, in the wake of the massacre, Gu is also a wanted man. He and the others are not out of the woods yet, literally and figuratively, and with a new general in pursuit, Commander Xu Xianchun (Han Yingjie), it is possible they have all finally met their match. A Touch of Zen’s delirious conclusion boasts a group of extremely proficient Buddhist monks, led by Abbot Huiyuan (Roy Chiao). This magisterial team has already intervened previously to shelter Yang and her compatriots, and they do so again in a grandiloquent denouement. (One could say their exceptional combat acumen is yet another unexpected feature of the film, another deception of superficial assumptions based on outward appearances and one that recalls Come Drink with Me, which also features its own surprisingly adept warrior).  

Aside from its hallucinogenic finale, the pictorial vibrancy of A Touch of Zen extends well beyond the fighting. Hu’s gloriously restless camera swoops fluidly up and down, tracks left and right, and dollys in and out, seldom resting for any prolonged duration. In addition to the mobility of the camera, there is persistent movement everywhere within the frame, with flickering candlelight, radiant shafts of spotlight sunshine, pouring rain, fluttering foliage tickled by the wind, and a perpetually creeping mist.

In terms of the martial arts action, though, the bamboo forest attack—a 10-minute sequence that took 25 days to shoot—is among the film’s most remarkable. Set amongst these tall lanky trees, the battle is otherwise marked by horizontal movement, with arrows and daggers darting across the frame, characters dashing sideways through the scenery, and lateral camera maneuvers setting up a grid work of contrasting directional advancement. Audibly embellished by the standard melody of clanging swords and the whooshing of fluttering clothes, Hu’s visual orchestration of action is abounding with acrobatic aerial assaults and a striking montage of varying shot size, duration, and position. Hu, who also edited A Touch of Zen, displays a particular knack for juxtaposing the flurry of fragmented, sometimes purely abstract, images during these fight sequences. Compared to many martial arts features, though, including Hu’s own relatively tame prior work, but especially those by others in the years to come, there is minimal bloodshed in A Touch of Zen, with only one key shot of arterial splatter that bears more thematic significance than violent punctuation. 

Seen as something of an exception to the martial arts norm of the time, A Touch of Zen, according to scholar Tony Williams, “appeared the one example of the form to justify the epithet ‘art film’, in the same way that Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) helped legitimize the Italian Western.” The link with Leone is appropriate, particularly with regards to Hu’s integration of dramatic character introductions, extreme close-ups, and A Touch of Zen’s sweeping scope. Hu’s film is also notable for its stunning ethereal cinematography, courtesy of Hua Huiying, which, especially at the start of the picture, contrasts markedly with the dilapidated condition of the fort and the village.

But it is more than just about capturing the beauty of the backdrop. To carry forward with the Western comparison, this time with John Ford and Anthony Mann in mind, it is also about emphasizing nature’s own defining features. The locations of A Touch of Zen both dwarf and intensify the characters, and Hu’s choreography of people and/in their places is first and foremost dependent upon where exactly the drama unfolds. Just as Gu and the others alter the area around the fort for their ambush, as Yang, Shi, and Lu roam amongst towering rock formations and stealthily traverse the enveloping forest, they move through the varied landscape with aspects of the environment concealing their presence (especially in the nighttime scenes) and prompting their decisions. Visually, the result is a necessary realignment of positioning and a naturally induced reframing of composition, one that keeps the characters in focus as the setting dictates. Cutting trees for obstruction and utilizing their surroundings to soar through the air, the fighters defy and modify nature as well. While the flat fields, forests, and rocky terrain generally express scenic authenticity, Hu also revels in an operatic artificiality, most prominently in the gymnastic leap-frogging of characters as they soar above the ground. It is all part of an ambitiously elaborate atmosphere of impossibility, something that contributes greatly to A Touch of Zen’s lavish quality.

In the real world, Hu was known for his meticulous attention to detail, from intricate storyboards to his oversight of props, costumes, and production design. The fort setting itself took nine months to build, sat unused for a time in order to age and weather appropriately, and was subsequently used for an estimated 200 movies after production on A Touch of Zen was complete. It’s little wonder the director lingers so often on the layered, overgrown construction.

A Touch of Zen (or at least the first hour of it) is based on a four-page story called “The Magnanimous Girl,” by Pu Songling. The film took two years to make and its 1969 Taiwanese release was divided into two parts. After its box office failure, the International Film Company tried recutting the film into a single two-hour feature, which was released in 1971, also to poor reception. The reconstruction of the whole work began in 1973 and premiered at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, where it became the first non-Mainland Chinese film to win an award at the annual showcase, garnering a technical prize for the restoration. A Touch of Zen has since been restored in 4K by L’Immagine Ritrovata, with original materials provided by the Taiwan Film Institute. 

Not a Buddhist himself, King Hu stated that when it comes to the profound though indefinite concept of “zen,” what interested him most was “capturing the flavor of an experience.” Fittingly, then, what distinguishes A Touch of Zen as much as anything else is its fluctuating tonal and narrative development, its interplay of diverse textures, sights, and sounds, and its mingling of generic tastes, ranging from mystery to ghost story to full on martial arts (such an “idiosyncratic tone” from Hu, as Cairns puts it, was already previewed in Come Drink with Me). Yet A Touch of Zen never loses an appreciation of its essential foundation, and its diverse ingredients form a unique, solidified whole. Straight martial arts films undoubtedly have their place, and many are great works in own right, but Hu’s 1971 masterpiece gives extra substance to the wuxia form, resulting in an experience that is indeed bursting with flavor. 

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