Most Western audiences could probably name a handful of important kung fu films – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, perhaps a smattering of Bruce Lee flicks – but it is King Hu’s A Touch of Zen that set the template for all kung fu cinema to follow. In A Touch of Zen, Hu created something that transcends its generic boundaries; a foundational masterpiece of affecting beauty and precision. The Kill Bill saga and The Matrix obviously took their cues from its style, but its continuing influence on cinema shouldn’t be underestimated; even the snowy lightsaber battle in the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than a little reminiscent of the bamboo forest fight in Hu’s film.
Part of the joy of A Touch of Zen is its lightness of touch, the three hour-running time zipping along with the help of an endearing central performance from Shih Jun as unambitious artist Ku Shen-chai. Ku, badgered by his mother to become a civil servant, is caught up in a plot that sees Yang Hui-ching (Hsu Feng) on the run from the government officials. Ku provides us with the ground-level perspective, as he watches slack-jawed at the kung fu antics Yang and her guard General Shih (Pai Ying) engage in with the evil Commander Hsu (Han Ying-chieh). Interestingly, the bumbling Ku never engages in fighting himself – Luke Skywalker he isn’t – but nevertheless experiences a hero’s journey of his own, insisting on helping the taciturn Yang, masterminding a ghost-based trap in one of the film’s stand-out sequences, and finally growing into himself as the father of Yang’s baby.
A period setting, fairy tale narrative and gravity-defying fight sequences in beautiful environments abound, but what surprises here is the slowness of pace: A Touch of Zen is a stately, mature epic, structurally having more in common with Lawrence of Arabia than Enter the Dragon; the film’s staggeringly beautiful compositions recalling David Lean as well as Akira Kurosawa. Equally, the colour-saturated photography speaks to gritty 1970s cinema, creating a visual style that incorporates both arthouse and exploitation. The central story is startlingly simple, but is revealed with such deliberation that each new sliver of information feels revelatory. Indeed, the concept of revelation is central to A Touch of Zen, culminating in a finale that is at once baffling, satisfying, and transcendent: a lesson in metaphysical filmmaking that the likes of the Wachowskis and Prometheus‘ Ridley Scott would do well to learn. Epic in scope, meditative in tone and exhilarating in execution, A Touch of Zen is a seminal moment in film history and a potent example of the power of cinema.
Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp