A Touch of Zen (Spine #825) is one of the pinnacles of Chinese cinema from none other than director King Hu. It is his only film in the collection, though more are expected to arrive soon enough. Film historian David Bordwell, in the essay attached to the release credits the film with bringing “Chinese martial arts cinema to a western audience.”
If you’re jonesing for an epic, look no further than Criterion’s latest batch of releases; visionary Taiwanese director King Hu’s A Touch of Zen has finally received a transfer worthy of the film’s high stature within filmic culture. With 45 retrospective years to consider since its 1971 release, the chef d’oeuvre of Hu has become a staple of the wuxia genre.
With its three-hour runtime, A Touch of Zen initially subverts its genre’s promises of unbridled action with an almost comedic prologue that forces immediate introspection prior to any violent combat. Hu introduces us to Ku, an unambitious scholar and painter who essentially comes of age after falling for the mysterious femme fatale who, with her two protector-generals, has taken up temporary shelter at the neighboring fort. They are on the run from corrupt officials, the very same that Ku’s mother wishes for him to join. It is such a well-paced setup that one hardly finds the time to lament the lack of action.
Time is found for all the characters to properly flourish, and eventually, narrative structure altogether is subverted as Ku nearly disappears and becomes a secondary character. Such is a testament to the film’s grandeur, which finds itself mercurial in genre and primary subject. Eventually the film transmutes itself until it is an allegorical battle between good and bad, transcending its simple premise to become something entirely different.
It is a film full of such amazing action sequences however, Hu chooses to keep many of them shrouded in the darkness. In the biggest set piece, our heroes are left indistinguishable from the faceless hordes of enemy soldiers, and evil villains, and it becomes easy to believe that there are threats even where there are not. This is part of the included touch of zen, which begins at the film’s attention to the beauty of the natural world and continues amidst its use of natural elements to obscure its many players. It is an appropriately fun and thrilling adventure and viewers won’t be disappointed, but it also a spiritual journey–one which finds itself so conscientious of the human lives wrapped within its story.
Hu is technically profound, transferring the prowess of the action choreography into simple movements as well. Each sequence is framed effortlessly with the entire screen filled with thought provoking and just outright stunning images. His experience with set and costume design is felt here as well; there is this perfect harmony here within technical aspects bestowed onto the screen that keeps the world at hand entirely believable and immersive, even when its characters are flying through tree lines, even throughout its long runtime.
The Criterion copy of the film comes with a documentary from 2012 about the director, as well as interviews with the film’s actors Hsu Feng and Shih Chun, as well as Ang Lee, and film scholar Tony Rayns. The booklet also doubles as a small poster!
Criterion once again paves the way for newer audiences to experience the evolution of film as an artform by restoring a monumental film once in danger of being forgotten. A Touch of Zen is one of the company’s more accessible films, so exquisite in its worldview that one can’t help but be entirely attached to the film, both in moments of meditative peace and violence.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection