Grandiose Spectacle and Mythic Spirituality: A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen (1970)

A Touch of Zen (1970), King Hu’s wuxia masterpiece, is currently screening online as part of IFFR Unleashed 50/50 programme. An occasion Kaj van Zoelen and Sean Gilman couldn’t pass up to discuss this transcendental classic. From it being very unusual for its genre, to the religions it touches upon, to its strange structure, to the special editing in King Hu films, and much more. 

A Touch of Zen

Kaj van Zoelen: Although King Hu’s fourth (or fifth, depending on how you count 1964’s The Story of Sue San) film was a financial flop initially, it has perhaps become his most enduring legacy. Even more so than Come Drink With Me (1966) or Dragon Gate Inn (1967), whose success allowed him to make what eventually became this three hour epic. That length and A Touch of Zen’s grandiose scope and spiritual ambition make it almost an anomaly of the genre, would you agree?

A Touch of Zen

Sean Gilman: I think of Dragon Gate Inn as the kind of culmination of the genre. It’s the wuxia film in its most pure, most perfect form: the broad cast of characters meeting in a remote location, the fights fuelled as much by wires and trampolines as athletic ability and cut like a Busby Berkely musical. Come Drink With Me helped get the ball rolling on the wuxia era, but Hu’s inability and unwillingness to work within the confines of the Shaw Brothers system led him to join his mentor Li Han-hsiang in trying to set up a competing film industry in Taiwan where he promptly out-Shawed the Shaws. That success then made A Touch of Zen possible. Like so many directors would do around the world in the 1970s and 80s, Hu capitalised on a smash hit to make an incredibly ambitious, bizarre, and personal film that took years to make and was met with indifference if not hostility by its initial audiences. Compared to such once-maligned masterpieces as Heaven’s Gate, One from the Heart, Ishtar and Sorcerer, however, A Touch of Zen quickly got the praise it deserved as by 1975 it became the first Chinese film to win an award at Cannes.

And in the forty years since it has only grown in reputation and influence, setting the model for the kind of prestige wuxia cycle that includes films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. But none of those imitators have really captured that balance between genre filmmaking and mythic spirituality that makes A Touch of Zen, along with later Hu films like Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain so unique. It’s that mystery, more than its action or sophisticated narrative construction, that keeps bringing me back to the film, that makes it something new every time I watch it. It’s the only wuxia that feels to me like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

A Touch of Zen

KvZ: I have the same experience, in that the film feels new each time I saw it. This was helped by seeing it in different format each time. I assume we both started out with that sadly bad quality DVD that until a few years ago was really the only way to see it for most people. I liked it a lot then, but nothing will probably rival my second viewing of it five years ago: on 35mm at a Buddhist festival. That day, A Touch of Zen truly felt like a transcendental experience for the first time. And since then it has been released restored on blu-ray around the world, so now we all can experience it in all its glory. 

One of the reasons I always find it to be a new experience, is its unusual structure, especially for its genre. Because the overwhelming ending with its, as you so nicely put it, mythic spirituality, and iconic scenes like the bamboo forest fight that has been imitated so many times, are the parts that most linger in my mind, I tend to forget that the first 45 minutes or so tells quite a different story. Because before we get to the first fight scene, 56 minutes in, there is the story of Gu, a scholar and painter living on the edge of the 14th century Ming empire with his mother. She regularly scolds him for his lack of ambition, and tries to get him married to Yang, the beautiful, mysterious new neighbour. Quite comedic at times, though tension also builds as agents of the Eastern Group infiltrate the remote town, chasing Yang and her companions. The market square serves as the inn does in so many of Hu’s films, as a place where unknown adversaries eye each other, square each other up and circle each other. Roughly the middle third of the film concerns a number of confrontations between Yang and her gang and the government agents, from the aforementioned fight in the bamboo forest to the bloody battle in the ruined fort (the first year of production was mostly spent on building that fort and letting it age, including letting plants grow over it). And then follows that spiritual third part that makes the film as far as I’m concerned, though some say it breaks it. I disagree with that notion, but I can understand how it can feel a bit tagged on; the story does seem resolved about 2 hours and 20 minutes in, and the excuse for prolonging it is a bit flimsy. How do you feel about that narrative construction, and the last third in general?

A Touch of Zen

SG: I love the structure, not just for the seamless way it moves from one main character to another, and from one kind of storytelling to another, but also because it seems to be modelled after the history of Chinese philosophy. Hu rarely focused on a single protagonist, instead his films are either about groups (Dragon Gate Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan, The Valiant Ones) or a series of main characters taking control of the narrative in succession (Come Drink With Me, Sons of the Good Earth, Painted Skin). A Touch of Zen uses the serial protagonist to map out a progression from Taoism and animism (superstitions, ghosts, darkness) through Confucianism (duty to the state and one’s family and comrades, rational pragmatism) to end up at Buddhism (a more profound, knowing mysticism and detachment). The scholar Gu (played by Shih Chun, who was a master swordsman in Dragon Gate Inn but is more believable here and again as a scholar in Legend of the Mountain) is the more active figure in the first stage, but recedes increasingly into the background as the film progresses. He devises schemes to help Yang (the always incandescent Hsu Feng) in her mission in the second half, building traps and “ghosts” to terrify and ensnare the superstitious enemy soldiers, but is ultimately horrified by the carnage he helped cause. In the final third, both Yang and the scholar fade to the background (she into seclusion and he to raise their child) and Roy Chiao’s monk takes centre stage. Here the film, which has become increasingly less chatty and humorous as well, becomes almost abstract, fusing action and mystical symbolism into the kind of somewhat baffling yet deeply moving ending that Ang Lee failed to create for Crouching Tiger.

As you say, it’s such a different approach than almost every other wuxia or martial arts film before or since. We’re used to Chang Cheh’s brutal reworkings of Shaolin history or earthy tales of betrayed brotherhood and bloody revenge. Even Lau Kar-leung, much more interested in the theory of martial arts than Chang, is ultimately more pragmatic than spiritual, concerned more with training the body than the mind and spirit. Even the seemingly endless cycle of Monkey King and Journey to the West adaptations use them more as fodder for cartoonish adventures than Buddhist parables, only Stephen Chow’s Conquering the Demons really comes close to the kind of thing I think Hu was up to here. And, I suppose, Hu’s own Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain, which engage with Buddhism and Taoism (respectively) in new and interesting ways. Is the best response to King Hu by the next generation of filmmakers really Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn?

A Touch of Zen

KvZ: The wuxia that first comes to my mind dealing with Buddhism and Taoism, is Tsui Hark’s The Green Snake (1993). But that is more a rejection of religious dogmatism and fanaticism than the kind of spiritual elevation King Hu aims for here. But does that signal a lack of ambition on the part of most other filmmakers, or just how incredible it is what Hu achieved here? According to Hu himself, he was told by a devout old Buddhist that the concept of ‘zen’ (or ‘chan’) could never be explained. It could only be felt through ‘an awakening to the truth,’ which could only be achieved through example or analogy, rather than explanation or logical analysis. In the 1975 Cannes press kit, Hu explains this by using the analogy of the concept of sweetness, which according to him can only really be explained by giving someone a piece of candy. That is why Hu didn’t want to get too specific, and gave the film the international title A Touch of Zen, because it’s not a specific film about the concept but rather an approach to the feeling and experience of ‘zen’. 

Perhaps more than any other aspect, the editing is key to this idea. Which also extends to the fight scenes. Compared to contemporaries like Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh, Hu’s editing is much faster and more impressionistic. The action scenes are less about showing you the complete choreography, the physical dexterity or the violence, but about giving the impression of people moving so gracefully and swiftly even Hu’s camera has a hard time keeping up. In order to achieve this effect, Hu uses jump cuts to erase part of the motion, trusting your brain to connect the dots. This gives all the action scenes a slightly spiritual, elevated feel, but especially the final fight scenes. The monks defeat their adversaries, who are seemingly more accomplished martial artists, with simple, almost crude moves that might never make it into a Lau Kar-leung film, but their spiritual speed and strength is emphasised through the cinematography (with very precise movement) and editing. 

A Touch of Zen

SG: The editing of the action is for sure the film’s most enduring legacy. In the 80s you see Ching Siu-tung (who had a small role as a child in Come Drink With Me) and Tsui Hark push Hu’s style to extreme ends, rapidly increasing the pace of the cutting to create something like the effect of a flip book. Each shot is posed and composed, but they fly by so quickly that your brain stitches together the missing connections to create the illusion of motion. It’s a very different style of quick-cutting than 21st century Hollywood editing, which relies on blurring motion to create the impression of action while actually obscuring it. Any individual shot in a Tsui/Ching action film is completely legible; you can’t say the same for, say, a Greengrass Bourne film.

Hu and Tsui and Ching all briefly worked together on the first Swordsman movie, but Hu either quit or got fired before long (hard to imagine such controlling auteurs as Tsui and Hu ever sharing authority). One of the directors who stepped up to help fill in was Ann Hui, who had worked with Hu as an assistant before becoming a director herself. In the mid-80s, Hui directed an adaptation of Louis Cha’s Romance of Book and Sword which is I think one of the more successful successors of Hu’s style, albeit more indebted to his historical films The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones than the more mystical A Touch of Zen. I’m hoping it soon gets the kind of restoration and revival that Hu’s films have found in the past few years. It’s funny how quickly things can change. As you mentioned at the start of this discussion, it was the case less than a decade ago that the only video available of A Touch of Zen was a crummy DVD transfer, fuzzy and way too dark and split down the middle like the original two-part theatrical release (complete with a repeat of the first half’s closing real at the start of the second half). His other films were just as difficult to find: only the truncated cut of Legend of the Mountain, a similarly bad DVD of Dragon Gate Inn, I first saw Lee Khan on a youtube rip of a VHS tape. But now all his 60s and 70s classics are widely available in terrific restorations (partially funded by Zen star Hsu Feng herself). We’re still waiting for his later films of course, but I can’t help but be optimistic about what the next ten years will unearth.

This Conversations Essay International Film Festival Rotterdam article was published in April 2021