An unambitious small town painter and monks from a Buddhist monastery aid a lady fugitive in her run from corrupt government officials.
I first watched King Hu’s wuxia masterpiece “A Touch of Zen” when the streaming service Filmstruck was still active. I thought this movie was genius the first time I watched it; I was so impressed that I actually went out and bought the Criterion edition of this movie and preordered “Dragon Inn”, which, at the time, had been announced but not released. Now having watched “A Touch of Zen” a second time over this rainy weekend, I have to say that this is one of the most epic and accessible wuxia movies I’ve ever seen. The story is exciting and intriguing and it doesn’t follow a normal narrative arc; the characters are eclectic and they each bring their own special something to the film; and the world in which this story is set is at times beautiful and peaceful, and other times ugly and violent. While this movie might not have the intricacies of “Seven Samurai”, I would argue that this movie is just as much fun and it can be just as satisfying as Kurosawa’s better-known film.
“My life is in great danger.”
Ku (Chun Shih, “Legend of the Mountain”) is an artist/scholar living in a remote village in China with his mother. One night by accident, he happens upon a woman named Yang (Feng Hsu “Farewell my Concubine”) who appears to be hiding in one of the village’s abandoned homes. Eventually he befriends Yang and learns that a Eunuch is after her.
One quality of a great epic film is that the movie will craft a world around itself as the story goes on, and “A Touch of Zen” does an amazing job of worldbuilding. Much of this story is set in a remote mountain village, and this village absolutely feels as if it was lived in. I actually read that King Hu constructed the sets for this film nine months before he started filming in order to give the sets a weathered look; this does a ton to add to the value of the production. Everything looks far more realistic- even down to the foliage creeping over the ruined buildings. In allowing the sets to become more weathered, it also adds to the world by making everything seem a little poorer. Our main characters feel more desperate when they live in buildings that seem to crumble, and it also helps to make the village feel more isolated, which is incredibly important to the story later on.
I actually really appreciate the slower pacing in the first hour of this film as well. Many Wuxia films start off a bit slower in the beginning before building to a large battle in the middle and then we move on to a few more smaller scale (but higher stakes) battles towards the end (think of this year’s “Shadow” or even Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). This film mostly follows that formula as well; the biggest battle is in the middle of the movie, but there are plenty of fight sequences that come after. However, since this movie does take a lot longer to get going than your typical wuxia movie, it feels as if the gravity of each fight is weighed before it commences.
What exactly do I mean by that? Well, the first fight in this film doesn’t really happen until around the hour mark, and by that time, the film has already established the village and Ku in a way that sets up the isolated location perfectly as well as set up Ku as a brilliant man who just doesn’t have a lot of motivation. His character is compelling, but when put next to Yang, he’s practically boring. Yang is such an awesome character for a couple of reasons, the first of which is she’s an incredibly powerful feminist character that comes from China in the 1970s. She’s more powerful than many of the men in this movie, and what makes her power even better is the fact that none of the men in this movie question it; they all accept the fact that she is a great fighter. Can we just stop and appreciate that for a minute? I mean this is a film that’s almost fifty years old in a country that is notorious for it’s treatment of women (remember the one baby policy?), and one of its main characters is a woman who is smarter and stronger than corrupt men. Forget movies like “Captain Marvel”- these are the kinds of strong female leads I want to see more of.
Another thing I love about this film is the unconventional narrative arc. We start off our story with Ku, but really, it’s Yang’s story, and we don’t even meet her until about the forty-five minute mark. The story isn’t told linearly at all either; we start at one point, flash back, flash forward, and then eventually end, but none of it is difficult to follow. Even the themes that King Hu addresses in this movie are unconventional, and the way in which this movie ends is not at all how I would’ve expected it to the first time through. The ending of this film is bittersweet, but it’s also beautifully poetic.
I’ve watched “A Touch of Zen” twice now, and both times I was blown away. If you like Wuxia films I also recommend Hu’s “Dragon Inn”, though I think this film is far more epic. This film is an exciting and unforgettable action adventure with plenty of pulse-pounding fight-sequences and memorable characters.
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