Criterion Prediction #29: A Touch of Zen, by Alexander Miller
Title: A Touch of Zen
Director: King Hu
Cast: Chun Shih, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Pai Ying, Cho Kin, Han-Ying Chieh and Sammo Hung
Synopsis: Ku is a portrait painter in a small town who is befriended by a mysterious woman named Yang. Ku learns that Yang is facing execution at the hands of Wei, a ruthless eunuch who is hunting Yang to prevent her from exposing his corruption to the emperor.
With the help of some skilled monks, they evade marauding warriors and engage in multiple skirmishes along the way.
Critique: As a lifelong fan of anything pertaining to the wuxia genre, I have adoration and love for the films of King Hu. As an actor turned writer turned director, Hu reinvented the wuxia genre with his seminal 1967 film Come Drink with Me, only to distinguish himself as the foremost authority of swordplay artistry five years later with his masterfully constructed epic A Touch of Zen. The deceptively complex narrative takes a backseat in favor of Hu’s indulgent sense of visual splendor and astounding fight choreography by Han-Ying Chieh.
Having said that, the film doesn’t suffer from a case of “style over substance” inasmuch as it benefits from the director’s artistic panache. While it is symptomatic in the martial arts genre to use any narrative conveyance as a springboard for action and fight sequences, King Hu advocates the influence of classic folklore contained with whimsical elements of action and fantasy. As a director, Hu’s indulgences aren’t self-aggrandizing nor is it reductive to say so because they were but the requisite measures to realize his ambition.
Having raised the bar for swordplay films, A Touch of Zen is endowed with an immersive atmosphere; expressive use of landscapes (lakes, mountains, woods) reveal a new texture to an otherwise studio bound genre. The result is an articulate and persuasive form of cultural fantasy. Gravity defying swordplay is commonplace in the martial world. Hu’s kinetic editing (he cut many of his movies) brilliantly showcases the balletic fight choreography of Han-Ying Chieh, an expert craftsman who also had a diamond cutter’s eye for editing fight sequences.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: First off, this would be a pivotal change for Criterion since it would be the first wuxia film in the collection. Whether or not I’m interpreting this month’s drawing properly is irrelevant-I’ve been pulling for the inclusion of King Hu for a long time. Come Drink with Me is in some ways more accessible but the Dragon Dynasty restoration does the film justice and there’s a good chance they will upgrade it to a Blu-Ray. Presently, the Tai Seng DVD of A Touch of Zen is acceptable since it is the more accessible way to see the movie. As an early generation DVD (released in 2002) it’s without frills or features, while I’ll always appreciate Tai Seng, for being the biggest distributor of Hong Kong movies in North America it’s hard to watch their DVD of this film. The picture is just one mark above laserdisc quality, the sound is jangly, and they present the film (as it was originally released) in two separate parts which was confusing upon my first viewing. Due to its length, A Touch of Zen was presented in two parts. However, the finale from part one is replayed at the start of part two, so you see the same scene in succession before and after the opening and closing credits. Regardless, it’s a terrific scene, so watching it twice never really fazed me but it is strange nonetheless. While fans of King Hu’s films have been scraping by on VHS tapes, region 3 DVD’s, VCD’s, and bootlegs with bad (or non-existent) subtitles the thought of A Touch of Zen getting the Criterion treatment is cause to celebrate. And if they can procure the full 200-minute version it would induce bombastic cartwheels of excitement. It’s not like Criterion would be ushering in a “good” wuxia film, they would kick off with one of the greatest wuxia films ever made. However, this is a prediction, and predictions don’t always come true but I’ll be rooting for this one pretty hard. You can buy the limited edition Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, presenting the film with a 1080p restoration, but it might be worth it to wait for the Criterion treatment. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time The Criterion Collection and Masters of Cinema had a crossover title.