A TOUCH OF ZEN: King Hu's Magnum Opus

April 24, 2024 - 11:44am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on A Touch of Zen were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of A Touch of Zen, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen at 7 p.m. on Sat, April 27, in the Cinematheque's regular screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Josh Martin

In his essay for the Criterion Collection, the late film scholar David Bordwell makes a crucial note about the narrative rhythms of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971). Contextualizing Hu’s film within the genre of the wuxia pian—the swordplay-driven, “martial chivalry” epic popularized throughout the 1960s and 70s in Chinese cinema—Bordwell observes that he “can’t think of another wuxia pian of the period that postpones its first combat for this long—nearly an hour.” Bordwell and fellow East Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns both foreground this languid, deliberate pace in their analyses of Hu’s epic. Indeed, this is an extraordinarily long film, running exactly three hours, and Hu uses that expansive canvas to the fullest. Far from a film singularly concerned with plot or narrative progress, A Touch of Zen is slow and patient, taking extensive time to sketch the atmospheric contours of its world. In the film’s opening shot, Hu presents a series of bugs caught in spider webs as mist engulfs the landscapes and immerses the viewer in this space. The sun rises over the foggy mountains, and the camera lingers on the realm of nature before approaching Jing Lu Fort, the film’s principal setting.

The rhythm described by Bordwell and other scholars—luxurious, contemplative, maybe even indulgent—is essential to understanding both A Touch of Zen’s status as a stylistic achievement and the complexity of its marathon-length, near-disastrous production. The film’s story follows Gu Shen-tsai (played by Shih Chun), a young calligrapher and artist who lives in a rural village. Lambasted by his mother (Chang Ping-Yu) for his lack of ambition as a scholar, Gu seems content to be unmarried and modestly employed, maintaining his quaint letter writing shop in town. But Gu’s modest life is turned upside-down when he stumbles into a greater conspiracy upon the arrival of Ouyang Nian (Tian Peng), a mysterious stranger who commissions a portrait at his shop. Ouyang’s entrance leads to a greater disruption with the subsequent entrance of Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng), a beautiful young woman who soon becomes the object of Gu’s affections. However, there is an ominous reason for her sudden appearance in this village. Pursued by Ouyang and dangerous agents of the Eastern Depot, Yang finds herself in great peril from these powerful forces connected to the emperor. 

Hu adapted A Touch of Zen from Pu Song-ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, published in 1679 during the Ming dynasty. As Hu writes in his press notes from the 1975 Cannes Film Festival (where the film was awarded the Technical Grand Prize), he had long been fascinated by the supernatural tales of the scholar Pu, despite the difficulties presented in translating his work to the cinematic medium. Hu eventually focused on “The Heroic Maid,” writing that “[he] was struck by the thought that if it could be filmed with a touch of Zen, the result might be highly effective.”

A Touch of Zen arrives at a critical point in Hu’s illustrious career. As scholar Stephen Teo notes in his monograph, Hu was born in Beijing, worked primarily in Hong Kong, and eventually took his talents to Taiwan. Initially a director for the famed Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong, Hu departed prior to the release of Come Drink with Me (1966) following extensive conflicts with producer Run Run Shaw. This fracture led Hu to the Taiwanese distributor-turned-production studio Union Film Company, where Dragon Inn (1967) came to fruition as a massive, career-defining success.

Hu followed Dragon Inn with A Touch of Zen, the film now understood to be his magnum opus. Both film scholars and Hu himself have chronicled the arduous and challenging process of making this particular screen epic. Described by Teo as a decidedly “meticulous” filmmaker, Hu’s infamous attention to detail prompted clashes with the leaders at Union. To the eyes of producers, a seemingly excessive amount of time was spent preparing the film. Hu noted that it took six months for him to write the screenplay for Zen; another nine months were spent building the set for Jing Lu Fort. As the “struggle” continued between financiers and Hu – one that “left [him] completely drained” – A Touch of Zen ultimately took roughly two years to make. The clash between Union producers and Hu did not end with the film’s completion. Nearing release, producers were frustrated with the length of the film, and, in a move that Hu lamented, his expansive epic was split into two separate pictures following three additional months of editing.

Teo’s superlative chronicle of this troubled production offers even more dramatic twists than Hu’s account. The two parts were set to release in 1970 and 1971, respectively. Following the release of the first installment, Hu left Taiwan for Hong Kong. As tension simmered between Hu and Union, Golden Harvest studio head Raymond Chow took on the role of “intermediary” between the two parties, allowing the project to be completed. The film was an immediate commercial failure. Even a two-and-a-half hour-long single cut of Zen found little financial success in Hong Kong, with producer Sha Yung-fong later claiming that its failure led to Union’s eventual decay. However, A Touch of Zen’s reputation as a calamitous film maudit did not last long. The film received an almost instantaneous critical rehabilitation in Europe, enabled by its premiere at Cannes. Far from a hidden gem, Hu’s wuxia epic has since been canonized as a highly influential and definitive monument of East Asian cinema.

A Touch of Zen’s long-term legacy can be largely attributed to its status as a distinctly cinematic experience first and foremost. The plot is quasi-labyrinthine, with our central character—the virtuous yet relatively hapless Gu—thoroughly disoriented for much of the film, learning about this tangled web of danger along with the spectator. The real guiding agent of the narrative is Yang, described by Teo as a notable example of the xia nü (“female knight”), a talented sword fighter who battles for the nobility of her family’s legacy.

Yet even if the film offers complexity on the level of plot, Hu’s atmospheric approach emphasizes the primacy of spiritual, aesthetic, and sensory dimensions. Hu’s interest in the concept of zen comes with the key caveat that he was not a Buddhist, nor did he intend to be, in his own words, “didactic or evangelical in [his] approach.” Instead, Hu offers a detour into the phenomenological realm: “All I am interested in is presenting the flavor of a particular experience.” Such an aesthetic experience is precisely what Hu provides his audience. The film presents a range of diverse settings and spaces, from the ghostly ambience around Jing Lu Fort to the illuminated world of the forest, where streams of light and fragmented bamboo trees bifurcate the gravity-defying feats on the battlefield. These atmospheric sensations are given further potency by Hu’s form, highlighted by the percussive, steadily accelerating score, the rapid cuts and precise montage, and lush mise-en-scène throughout. As Bordwell emphasizes, it takes time to reach the action—Hu is never in a hurry, savoring the details of this world’s extravagant natural beauty. Yet it is exactly this deliberate method that makes the film such a rewarding journey. A Touch of Zen demands your attention and your patience, but the ultimate destination is pure ecstasy.