Director: King Hu
Writer: King Hu
DP: Hua Hui-Ying
Editor: King Hu, Wing Chin-chen
Score: Wu Ta-chiang, Lo Ming-tao
Producer: Hsia Wu Ling-fung
Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun, Bai Ying, Roy Chiao, Tien Peng, Zhang Bing-yu, Wang Rui
Distribution: The Criterion Collection
Length: 2 hrs. 59 min.
(I originally posted a somewhat longer version of this here.)
In King Hu's notes on A Touch of Zen for the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, he mentions a conversation he had with an old Zen Buddhist. The man told Hu that Zen can only be understood through an enlightening experience, and not through any kind of explanation. Hu was not a Buddhist (nor was he a martial artist), but he believed that if he could capture such an experience, it would make for a strong film.
Obviously, a filmmaker's intentions don't necessarily tell you anything of substance about their film. Even so, I think Hu's stated goals speak to what it's like to watch A Touch of Zen. The characters are caught up in political intrigue and mostly don't speak of Zen. Despite this, it always feels as though the politics take a backseat to a grand, essential ideal served – consciously or unconsciously – by the characters' actions.
It takes several minutes before we see or hear a human being in A Touch of Zen. It opens with spiders on their webs, followed by majestic, almost sanctimonious shots of mountainous landscapes. Then, the ruins of an abandoned war fortress. Humans aren't dwarfed or rendered insignificant in A Touch of Zen's world, but they do have a limited, determined place therein. They have to share space with inky black shadows and shafts of light passing through mist; non-human presences hold their positions throughout the film, sometimes at the expense of intruding humans. The characters struggle to abide this as they navigate sloping topography and contrasting planes of action, gravitating to where they can be at ease.
The characters spend the first hour making self-conscious attempts to be unobtrusive. They struggle against heavy vegetation, worry about intruding on the territory of angry ghosts, and speak in deferential terms when they talk to people from outside their own families. Meanwhile, one of the villains walks into people's homes uninvited; he represents a corrupt human authority that leaves some unbound by social mores but capable of enforcing them on others. The villains are cosmic criminals, imposing structure onto the world which opposes the grand order of things.
When we see the fighters gracefully jump about and yield to the flow of the action as if dancing, we can see how their mastery makes them freer. When the protagonists face off with government officials in a bamboo forest, they gain the upper hand by utilizing the environment while their enemies try to cut it down. The strongest fighters' discipline allows them to tap into immense power.
A Touch of Zen's rich colors and incidental portrayals of natural beauty evoke the spiritual fulfillment that arises from attaining balance in one's own natural state. The film's most breathtaking imagery is precipitated by the appearance of Buddhist monks in the final act, the wisest and most powerful of all the characters. Their leader, Abbot Hui, has an almost supernatural influence over others. The film sets him against the sun, and when he exercises his power, he steps aside to let rays of sunlight shine past him. His power comes from his awareness of the environment and his understanding of the position he holds within it.
Hu's notes also explain that he intended for the film to be critical of the use of secret police forces. Even though A Touch of Zen floats above politics, they still feel like a vitally pressing issue because of how much they threaten to get in the way of its heroes' paths to peace and enlightenment.
What's more, the film condemns not only the actions of corrupt public officials and secret police forces but also the blind respect they receive based on societal expectations. The main character, Gu Sheng-Tsai, is a scholar who only wishes to be a school teacher. However, much to his vexation, people won't stop pestering him to take the public service exam (an exam required for those who wanted to become public officials in China until the 20th Century). Gu’s mother insists that becoming a public official is the highest honor a man can achieve. Part of the reason it’s easy for the authorities to abuse their power is that people accept such beliefs as a matter of course.
This concern with the public service exam in particular perhaps unsurprising: the film is based on a story by 17th Century Chinese scholar , whose writing was critical of corruption he saw in society, and of the imperial civil service exam. The exam becomes a burden on Gu Sheng-Tsai, one of A Touch of Zen‘s main characters.
The film's climax and the result of the final face-off isn’t as conclusive as you might expect; A Touch of Zen has a strangely open ending. I won’t go into too much detail, but it leaves a lot unsaid and unsolved – or perhaps more accurately, it leaves behind the world it inhabits, suggesting that the only solution is for the characters to accept a major paradigm shift.