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A Touch of Zen

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 11/24/2009

Even after almost forty years since its' release, King Hu's wuxia (swordsplay) classic A Touch of Zen remains one of the best martial arts films ever created. It might come off as slow-moving to today's audiences, but even the most jaded viewer should be able to see the power and beauty of this movie's images.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: j.crawford
Date: 12/25/2007
Summary: groundbreaking

There is no doubt about it. A Touch of Zen is a milestone in martial arts cinema. Its unique style was groundbreaking, garnering accolades for director King Hu from across the globe. The exceptionally strong female character and her stoic actions piqued the interest of feminists everywhere a film festival was held well into the next decade after its initial release. It is best to enjoy this film in two parts, like it was originally shown in theaters. With an over 3 hour total running time, it could be an arduous task to savor the nuances that are, indeed, extraordinary. A special film that is over 35 years old plays like a 35 year old movie.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: JohnR
Date: 04/09/2007
Summary: Needs a Touch of Adreneline

I'm the odd man out, I realize, but this movie is not able to cross the bridge to the 21st century. It's truly a classic, but "classic" in the sense of dignified and old; not in the sense that it works as well today as it did when it was released. If T of Z were an actress, it would not be Heather Locklear.

I'm not a film scholar and I don't know the technical side of film making, but to me this movie looks like a Chinese director's attempt to make a Japanese film; Kurosawa South. It's as ponderous as a comparable Japanese film, but without any of the endearing quirkiness.

The storyline is decent, though nothing special, but be ready for an incredibly s l o w movie and a lot of heavy eye makeup. If a character has to walk across the countryside, the director films it all in real time. (I'm exaggerating, but not by a lot.) And the sword fight scenes, though probably very realistic in terms of how they actually occurred back then, are much different than modern action sequences. It's not supposed to be a documentary; I would have liked to have seen more poetic license.

I'm not criticizing T of Z for not being like movies that were made thirty years later, I'm simply pointing out that viewers raised on modern films will look at this the same way I imagine teenage Eminem fans look at "Love, Love Me Do." If you're into film history or you were a Hong Kong movie fan back when A Touch of Zen came out, then this will probably be a very welcome three hours and no doubt worthy of the 8-10 grades all the other reviewers have given it. Otherwise, unbuckle your seat belt and get ready for a long, slow ride.

Reviewed by: Gaijin84
Date: 08/20/2006
Summary: Excellent film but hurt by a horrible transfer...

What can I say about this movie that hasn't been said already? Tremendous atmosphere, great acting and a terrific plot put this film in the upper echelon of the genre and movies in general. My personal favorite aspects are the soundtrack and Roy Chiao's performance. The wailing, almost siren-like singing draws you into the movie and puts you on edge for most of the film, and the music really sets the scene throughout. Roy Chiao is also terrific as the Abbot Hui Yuan. His presence and aura are dominating in his scenes, and although he rarely uses his abilities, just the look on his face is enough to make adversaries think twice. When forced into action, his movements are quick, fluid and totally effective. Overall an excellent film, but slightly diminished because of the poor transfer to DVD.

I was able to see this film a couple of years ago on the big screen at a festival and it was great but the desire to watch it again forced my hand towards the Tai Seng DVD. The colors were very muted and the contrast was horrible, putting a big dent in my enjoyment of key scenes, namely the night raid scene at the old fort. I hope to review again when a superior transfer is available. It is a travesty that a studio has not paid for the rights to restore and remaster this film. It would be an instant buy for thousands of people. Keeping my fingers crossed for that occasion.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 07/08/2006
Summary: Too short!

Well-meaning but unambitious scholar/painter Ku (Sek Jun) is visited one day by an out-of-towner by the name of Ouyang Nin (Tin Peng) who wishes to have his portrait painted. The outsider, though mysterious, seems to be harmless enough – though he does tend to ask a lot of questions about other newcomers to the town. Ku is lorded over by his mother, who wishes him to become an official in the government and get married so that he can carry on the family name. When Yang Hui-Ching (Hsu Fung) arrives in town, Ku’s mother thinks she’s found the perfect match. But she seems to have a few secrets of her own, and Ouyang Nin is very interested indeed…

Although symbolism generally isn’t a strong point for me, the meaning of the opening shot of a spider weaving her web and catching flies did not go unnoticed. In fact, the spider’s web theme crops up again later in the film and actually feels more like a plot device than anything else. As mentioned in other reviews, the film is quite clearly and cleverly layered, a device emulated by the likes of Tsui Hark ever since.

The first hour focuses on Ku and his relationship with his mother. He is constantly harassed into taking his officer’s exam and finding a wife. When he meets Yang, his mother proposes to her on his behalf! Although she rejects him, he later finds himself sleeping with her (Yang, not his mother). Upon losing his virginity to her, his character goes through a severe change. No longer the naïve bumbling innocent, he becomes confident and assertive, and when Yang’s plight is revealed, he insists on being part of it – and even comes up with a fiendish trap for the East Chamber. More about this later…

The second hour is where the action sequences start. That’s right, for the first 55 minutes there’s not a single sword fight! However, when it kicks off, it does so in style. This eventually culminates in the fight at Green Bamboo Hill, a fight that leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to where Zhang Yimou got his inspiration for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS from. You’ve also got a flashback to Yang’s original flight with general Shih (Pai Ying) and Doctor Lu (Sit Hon) and their encounter with an order of Buddhist Monks, who we later learn taught Yang everything she knows.

The final section ties everything together. It’s here that we find the true extent to which Ku’s character has changed. He laughs callously as he strolls through the aftermath of his “ghost trap” for the East Chamber soldiers. That is, until he discovers the loss of life his creation caused. The look of horror on his face is credible and shocking. The use of superstition as a weapon may appear to be far-fetched in this day and age, but it has to be remembered that out east this sort of thing was taken very seriously indeed, and remains so to this day in some areas.

Yang of course features most heavily in the later stages of the film as she is forced to confront her aggressors along with Shih and Lu. The denouement is certainly worth waiting for. Other than that, I’m saying nothing.

The one word that describes this film accurately and completely is “unique”. The settings used are moody and atmospheric right from the opening shot until the final second. The town itself is suitably squalid, but shot so atmospherically that it draws you right in and doesn’t let go. In fact the whole film drips atmosphere and mood, sometimes making the locations feel more like characters in their own right. And unlike many eastern epics, this film never meanders. The reason for this may be the relatively small cast of characters. Every character in this film has a right to be there, and every one of them is memorable.

The cast itself is pretty much unknown to me, which I think helped my enjoyment as I wasn’t overly familiar with the faces (although checking the HKMBD revealed that Hsu Fung and Sek Jun were King Hu veterans and regulars!). I was only really familiar with Hsu Fung (“Hey! It’s that lady from TO KILL WITH INTRIGUE!”) and of course Roy Chiao. A baby-faced Sammo Hung also appears, but apart from him and a walk-on part for Kok Lee-Yan (who I think was contractually obligated to appear in every film made in the east - probably until his death) the film is free from the usual Hong Kong regulars – not surprising, I suppose, as the film is Taiwanese.

I really can’t recommend this film highly enough. The one image that seems burned in my mind at the moment is a scene where Ku travels the land in search of Yang. He is pictured walking along with an absolutely gob-smackingly stunning vista behind him. Whereas most directors would have lingered and probably filmed the entire conclusion there, the shot is just a few seconds long. Like with so many other aspects of the film, it leaves you wanting the experience to never end. Phenomenal.

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 04/25/2006
Summary: 10/10 - Greatest martial arts film of all time?

I shall have to write a few quick words about A TOUCH OF ZEN, because I apparently haven't reviewed it before! At 3 hours in length, King Hu's masterwork is probably the most ambitious martial arts film ever made, and certainly one of the best. The film has a unique three act structure, with the plot unfolding in layers - it begins small (the opening shot of a spider weaving a web is an iconic image that presages what is to come) and slowly builds to something much larger... reaching a level of profundity few films of any genre can claim to reach. This is certainly not "chop socky"!

It is also one of the most beautiful martial arts films - King Hu's eye for camera placement is remarkable, and almost any frame from the film could be used as a poster.

The film's action scenes were also ground-breaking, particularly the infamous fight in a bamboo forest. The use of quick cuts, with flashes and hints of movement to convey the supernatural speed, grace and agility of the legendary warriors of the jiang hu, was a profound influence on many films that followed it.

35 years later, A TOUCH OF ZEN is still the film by which all other martial arts films are measured... including the director's other works, which is in some ways unfortunate for him. After setting such a high standard, there was really nowhere for his career to go but down, and despite making some more great films in the 70's, King Hu's relatively slow work rate apparently doomed him to never have the kind of success and fame that some of his peers (and imitators) would enjoy. An attempt by Tsui Hark to revive his career with 1990's SWORDSMAN didn't work out - only one shot directed by King made the final cut - and he died in 1997 with the vast majority of his work unavailable on home video and unseen for years. Even now, many of his films are difficult to find on DVD, and only a few have received the kind of remastering they deserve - criminally, this does not even include A TOUCH OF ZEN!

But, the film is at least out on dvd in a few countries, so it can be seen by the sufficiently dedicated - which should be enough to ensure that its reputation lives on :)

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: pjshimmer
Date: 07/18/2005
Summary: Mood-driven journey to spiritual enlightenment

To think that I used to accuse King Hu of doing injustice to the wuxia genre with boring storytelling and slow action, I must have been on crack at the time--as his best works completely transcend elements of conventional film-making. In A TOUCH OF ZEN, It's not the story or the action that stands out; although they are part of the system, they are secondary to the theme of spiritual enlightenment, which is what counts in Buddhist philosophy. When the abbot confronts the East Chamber agent, the art of combat is strictly utilized by the abbot to guide the agent to "put down his sword, and attain peace with Buddha." There is a haunting sight when the bookworm scholar is amused by his tactic which fooled the agents. He thinks he has reached the peak of perfection, but then he sees dead bodies lying around who have suffered from his tactic, and the only thing on his mind is a woman whom he lusts. As book-smart as he is, he still suffers from worldly affair like everyone else. Only at the end when he accepts Buddha is he able to live in peace.

Aside from the philosophical points, ZEN also scores strongly in establishing mood, suspense, and fascinating visuals. The Jiang Hu in this film feels incredibly authentic, and the rich mise-en-scene is refreshing compared to the limited Shaw Bros studio offerings. I loved the photography throughout; it beautifully captures the spiritual wonder of ancient Orient. In framing still shots, King Hu chiefly employs medium and medium close-ups, mounting his camera at an upward angle so we can always see beyond the characters, perhaps to suggest existence of higher wisdom.

One observation I would like to propose is that although ZEN is probably a milestone in Chinese cinema, it would be a minor masterpiece compared to the best works from 60s Japan. The lush photography and haunting images from KWAIDAN come to mind as a comparison. No doubt, King Hu also learned a few tricks from the likes of Kurosawa, such as pointing his camera at the sun which occurs frequently in ZEN.


Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: danton
Date: 01/03/2002

3 hr long martial arts wuxia classic from the early seventies, shot in Mandarin and directed by King Hu. The movie that helped create many of the conventions still used today in this genre. Does the film hold up to its legendary reputation? I think so. Despite the fact that the extended swordfight scenes are somewhat slow and cumbersome compared to the acrobatics and thrill offered by later movies from the early nineties, they are nevertheless gripping, once you get used to the different way they are presented (less wires, heavy use of trampolines, brief clashes alternating with frozen poses and stares, the latter somewhat reminiscent of Japanese Samurai movies). In fact, I thought King Hu did a great job experimenting with some unusual camera techniques and editing tricks: the fights are often seen from an observer position and hence intentionally obscured by trees/bushes/walls or just slightly out of frame, POV shots often feature jump cuts leaving out one element of an attack sequence, and shots of the environment (i.e. rustling grass, shadows moving over rocks/bamboo etc.) are intercut throughout, thereby creating a tense atmosphere of foreboding that is more effective than seeing the actual body movement itself. Highlights include a thrilling fight in a bamboo forest and the final climactic showdown (involving a very young Sammo Hung as one of the 2 sidekicks of the evil commander) which lasts for about 20 minutes and morphs from straight action to an almost psychedelic climax.

The movie seems to start as a typical Chinese ghost story, but then turns into a straight action drama centered around political conflicts and prosecution/corruption during the Ming dynasty and then finally moves almost into the realm of mysticism. Peter Nepstedt in his excellent review on his Illuminated Lantern site has outlined how this corresponds to a shift from Superstition (Taoism) to Politics (Confucianism) to finally Religion (Buddhism). I recommend reading his review, which provides a good summary of the plot (with plenty of spoilers!).

The movie requires patience - it opens with a montage of gorgeous nature shots that last for a full 7 minutes before even a single word is spoken. And the the first serious fight does not occur until about an hour into the movie. But the beauty of the cinematography and the unfolding story make it well worthwhile.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: Randy Byers
Date: 02/28/2001

A TOUCH OF ZEN is based on a story from Pu Songling's Qing era anthology "Liaozhai Zhiyi", which also provided the source for A CHINESE GHOST STORY and Hu's own PAINTED SKIN. The Chinese title refers to the "knight-lady" (played by the glorious Hsu Feng), but the main character is the underachieving scholar, Ku (Sek Kun). Unlike the manic flying swordsman movies of the '90s, the story develops slowly, as Ku is harangued by his mother, meets various mysterious characters, and begins to suspect that the legends about ghosts in the ruined fortress next door are true. The suspense builds as we learn more about the characters, and close to an hour goes by (I saw the three hour version) before the action kicks into a higher gear. After a series of flashbacks that fill in the history, the final stretch treats us to confrontations, devious plotting, and clanging, gymnastic sword battles.

This is a gorgeous, carefully crafted movie. The sets and settings are beautiful, often wrapped in mist or fog, or blazing with brilliant sunlight. The interplay of fog and sun becomes thematic, as intrigues and identities are alternately concealed and revealed. The recurring shots of a spider web become an image of both the intricate weaving of the plot and the deadly traps that the contending sides lay for each other.

Hu is famous for his innovations in presenting mystical martial arts action on the screen, and his techniques are evident in A TOUCH OF ZEN. Instead of wires, he uses suggestion. A Buddhist monk runs across the tops of plants, and what we see is the rustling of the leaves, a flurry of feet, and a face rushing toward us, haloed in sunlight. While the use of trampolines strikes modern eyes as outmoded and even silly, the choreography of the swordfights is still dramatic, drawing on the traditions of dance and acrobatics.

Hu's take on the classic tale of political corruption, underdog gutsiness, and the transcendent power of faith is as impressive as the visual spectacle. The moral isn't simple, as we are reminded when a character's glee at the success of his clever ploy is quickly sobered by the sight of the sprawled corpses of his enemies -- new-made ghosts to haunt future ruins.

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

Commenced in 1969, released in 1975. Originally running to 4 hours' screen time, a 200 minute version was later shown at Cannes and released in the West. The movie has nothing to do with Zen Buddhism - the English title was meant as a selling point to the (then) Zen-obsessed Westerners.

[Reviewed by Iain Sinclair]

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

One of the first "modern" wuxia flicks to get wide art housedistribution in the west (it hit London in 1981 and Houston in 1984). Considered by many to be the best ever made in the genre. More info would be much appreciated.

[Reviewed by Anonymous]