Buddhist battle: Kung Hu’s A Touch Of Zen (1971) – Blu-ray review
The martial arts films as transcendent epic: enough symbolism to keep art-house scholars happy, but still funny and exciting enough for fans of a good fight.
A Touch Of Zen
(King Hu, 1971)
Martial arts films: they’re all the same, right? Not quite. King Hu was already a master of the xuwia genre by the time he made A Touch Of Zen and this is his attempt to transcend his (admittedly excellent) earlier work like Dragon Inn. With an epic running-time and a highly unusual, phantasmagorical final act, it’s far from the norm.
Even in its relatively familiar opening stretches, there’s enough freshness to alert you to Hu’s ambitions. A complex narrative structure introduces several characters surrounding the orbit of audience surrogate Gu – a genial Everyman played by Dragon Inn’s Shih Jun – but it isn’t immediately apparent which are heroes and which are villains. A leisurely, often comedic first hour portrays the mystery from the viewpoint of this character, barely even tapping into the swordplay we’re expecting.
Only when the truth is out does the film’s momentum tumble out, via a mid-film flashback of strikingly mythic grandeur (and an obvious inspiration to Ang Lee when he made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The film becomes a canvas of good and evil and Gu has to decide between violent action and anonymous bystanding. In a Hollywood film, there wouldn’t be much debate but Hu is more nunanced than that: in one of the film’s set-pieces, as two characters fight, the vantage point switches to Gu and we realise his protector is fighting on his behalf. It’s worth pointing out that this fluidity is possible because of the panache of the cinematography, constantly roving to reposition characters in the frame.
Even so, it feels like a variant on Seven Samurai, especially in a protracted, expertly conceived battle where wily strategy helps the outnumbered heroes to trick their opponents. But look at the details: the threat of ‘ghosts’ is being used as a psychological ploy, with spirits – in reality, dummies – apparently rising from the earth. Meanwhile, Nature surrounds everybody: there are Malick-level compositions of nature, wreathed in ethereal mists – and man’s trap is but another version of the spider’s webs that form the film’s gorgeously evocative opening montage. Life and death, the interconnected of things – these are weighty themes for a fight film.
If you hadn’t gone the cyclical symbolism, Hu unleashes that final act. In any other film, that big battle would be the climax, but here the wheel turns and a new villain arrives to perturb the good guys. This will continue indefinitely, suggests Hu, until something radical is done. The answer comes from a righteous, bad-ass warrior monk (played by Roy Chiao, who Indiana Jones fans will recognise as Lao Che), using Buddhist doctrine to cleanse the villain of his sins. The film ends with visions amidst a surreal stand-off in the desert, whose stillness feels challenging even now. It isn’t only martial arts films that aren’t supposed to end this way; pretty much everything looks conventional next to this.