In a new interview recorded for the Criterion Collection's release of A Touch of Zen, film scholar Tony Rayns refers to King Hu's strange, ambitious, three-hour martial arts epic as, “the first arthouse martial arts movie.” The film's middle hour is full of grand, impressively stage battles that unfold in open fields, in bamboo forests and within the confines of a possibly-haunted palace. However, the hours that bookend that action-packed stretch offer material that is far more deliberate, enigmatic and challenging. You get your blockbuster entertainment, but only if you're willing to spend some time thinking before and after.
Our tale begins with Ku (Shih Jun), a genial scholar and artist who spends his days happily painting portraits and getting lost in thought. The fact that he's over thirty and still hasn't found a wife greatly concerns his mother (Cheung Bing-yuk), who suspects that her son may never have an heir if he doesn't find a little romance. Enter the quiet, attractive Yang (Hsu Feng), who has just moved into the supposedly-haunted property nearby. Why move into a haunted house? “Free rent,” Ku's mother declares.
All of this material unfolds at a remarkably leisurely pace, as the film quickly settles into a sort of languid neorealism. The opening scene devotes several minutes to atmospheric nature footage (including lots of spider webs... a metaphorical image that will continue to appear regularly). The scene after that waits several minutes before allowing dialogue to enter the film, and a scene in which Ku attempts to follow a mysterious figure at night is given so much time that it begins to feel like an extended short film.
Given the deliberate nature of this material, it's fairly startling when the film springs into action. The fight scenes don't employ jaw-dropping wire work or outlandish stunts, but rather provide the illusion of otherworldly athleticism by employing elegant editing: a person leaps into the air in one shot and lands on their feet in the next. It sounds cheap, but it isn't: there's such a remarkable grace and fluidity to these scenes that they become exciting in spite of their immediately obvious artifice (Ang Lee credits the film as a major influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). What looks like the film's actual plot begins to reveal itself in the second hour, too, as we learn the mysterious story of Yang's past and get a window into a complex political (and literal) battle she is waging with the villainous Eunuch Wei.
However, once the series of increasingly violent battle scenes have concluded (wrapping up with an exceptionally powerful visual statement on the human cost of war), the film pivots yet again, bringing focus to a group of Buddhist monks and delving into some surprisingly surreal spiritual symbolism (there's that touch of Zen the title promised). It's a fascinating and somewhat bewildering final act, particularly given the way it effectively undercuts so much of what has come before it.
A Touch of Zen can be a difficult watch at times. I'm not sure the three-hour running time is entirely justified, and the different pieces don't connect quite as neatly as you might want them to (though this feels like the sort of film that might benefit from repeat viewings). Even so, it's a interesting and intermittently gripping movie, filled with remarkable imagery and a handful of intriguing (if somewhat opaque) ideas.
A Touch of Zen
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 180 minutes
Release Year: 1971