Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Touch of Zen

In 1966 Shaw Brothers director King Hu left Hong Kong for Taiwan, after falling out with his former employers during the production of Come Drink With Me. In Taiwan Hu went to work for Union Film Company, a distribution outfit eager to get into production. After the success of their first collaboration, Dragon Gate Inn, Union gave Hu a free hand to produce his next film, A Touch of Zen which would end up being one of the most elaborate and expensive Chinese productions up to that point. Three years in the making, the film would become King Hu's great masterpiece.

In the film, Ku Shen-chai, a humble calligrapher falls for Miss Yang, a mysterious young woman who has moved in to the neighbouring house. When Ku Shen-chai is commissioned by local officials to draw a wanted poster for the woman, he discovers her true identity - she was the daughter of the slain head of the Yang clan and is being hunted down by the villainous East Chamber clan. Ku vows to help Miss Yang and her two allies to defeat the East Chamber, a fight which will take courage, skill, strategy and a touch of zen courtesy of a Buddhist monk...

A Touch of Zen is a feast for the senses. The film is a wonderful mix of different textures and flavours - a wuxia film with elements of the supernatural, with some added romantic drama and political intrigue. King Hu's direction is superb throughout, equal parts poetic and powerful, his camera movements infused with tremendous elegance befitting such a regal film. It's a visually extraordinary film too, full of natural beauty with the much of the second half of the film set amongst forests, waterfalls and river gorges, all of it in glorious Cinemascope. Hu himself designed and oversaw the construction of the sets, recreating an entire town as if it was plucked right out of the Ming Dynasty era 1. The climax of the film sees Hu pushing the visuals into the realm of pure surrealism with a character who bleeds gold and the startling use of lens flare and negative photography.

The famous battle sequence in the bamboo forest where the two clans somersault and swoop through the air may not scale the fanciful heights of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon but it may well be all the better for it, as it feels far more organic. The sequence itself is a dazzling melding of clever camera angles, balletic choreography and tour de force editing, and is lit using a technique similar to what Kurosawa used on Rashomon, whereby the sunlight streaming through the dense trees lends a strange and eerie diffused light.

Nowadays A Touch of Zen is widely regarded as one of the great masterworks of Chinese Cinema, but the film would prove a disappointment with audiences when released in Hong Kong in November 1971. Unlike the Taiwan release which broke the film into two parts (arriving a year apart from each other), the version prepared for Hong Kong was a single film, but had lost some 30mins from the original 180min cut. The reaction to the film was indifferent, perhaps the film was too strange and esoteric compared to Bruce Lee's debut film The Big Boss which was doing huge business around the same time. Hu's film had all been buried and forgotten, when in 1975 the film was included in the Cannes film festival to much success. Following its appearance at Cannes, the film became something of an arthouse hit with Western audiences lapping up the film's unconventionality and its Eastern exotica.

A Touch of Zen has had DVD releases in France, Germany and South Korea, all of which carry no English subtitles. There's a mediocre cropped R2 UK disc courtesy of Optimum, but if you can seek it out, the 2002 US disc from Tai Seng is the best of a bad bunch. Picture wise, the slightly windowboxed 2:40 transfer is a mixed bag. Detail is good in close up shots but tends to get lost in the digital fuzz of long shots. Contrast is weak too - the post-credits shot of a dragonfly ensnared in a spider's web is difficult to make out, and problematic too during the nighttime battle at Ching Lu fort. The print used for the transfer is quite ragged with the appearance of nicks, tears, and change-over cues throughout. The audio is not terribly great either, the Mandarin dialogue and music sound rather thin and hissy. The sole extra is a text essay about King Hu. It it all doesn't add up to much, considering such an important, landmark film deserves nothing less than the Criterion or Masters of Cinema treatment (preferably with a commentary from Bey Logan). Still, whatever way you see the film, it remains absolutely required viewing.

1. The sets for A Touch of Zen would be an integral aspect of the film. Hu had the sets built as he was writing the film, drawing inspiration from them for the story. Hu had the sets weathered to achieve an authentic look and in the film they look quite spectacular, the Ching Lu fort especially so, with its tall unruly grasses and great tendrils of fog and dust that waft around it. All this expensive production detail would almost bankrupt the Union Film Company and after the initial failure of the film King Hu would again part ways with another studio.


  1. Wes, I have that dvd, I took a look at it and held off watching it hoping for a Criterion or MoC release as you mention.

  2. I was thinking about this yesterday Mart, who actually owns the rights to the film - I can't believe Criterion or MOC didn't consider this for a release at some point - I might do a little investigative work and see what the story is...

  3. I put the question to the MOC folks over at the Criterion board and they said:

    "It would be a fine release if we could get hold of it - we'd love to do it. We're coming out of an acquisitions period now, and moving into a 'batten down the hatches' mode, but it's certainly on our 'desirables' list."

  4. I might be able to help here! Some time ago, I actually asked Bey Logan about the absence of decent-quality transfers of this film on dvd.

    He answered that the owner of the rights is an insane old man who insisted on a huge license fee, and a wide US theatrical release for Touch Of Zen part one and two (traditionally, it was played as two films).

    I hope that sheds some light on the issue, as there appear to be a lot of people online who like me want to see this film get the release it deserves. This looks unlikely while that old nutcase is in possession of the rights, though.

    Maybe if I stood on his front lawn, through wind, rain and snow, until he relents...? Or maybe I've watched too many kung fu movies...


  5. Good stuff James... I'm hoping somewhere down the line this one will be given the royal treatment it deserves. I remember people saying El Topo and Holy Mountain would never be seen on DVD due to Allen Klein's long running spat with Jodorowsky but in the end we got all-singing, all-dancing versions of both those films, so never say never. However I will stand with you on the old bugger's front lawn, through wind, rain and snow if you think this would fast track a fitting release.

  6. I'm standing by for that full and fitting release. I want to see this - and I want to see it right.