A Touch of Zen (1971)

I’m not the most patient of audiences; while I may be impressed by the technical achievements of a three-hour epic from a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s unlikely that type of grand-scale exhibition of auteurist hubris will ever fully steal my heart. My favorite films are often low-budget, D.I.Y. outsider art projects that could comfortably fit on a drive-in double bill, less than half the length of what anyone would considered an epic. That impatience keeps me at a fearsome distance from the wuxia genre, a subset of martial arts cinema that adapts action movie payoffs to Chinese historical epic narratives. Until recently, I’d only ever seen the Hollywood bastardizations of the wuxia aesthetic that arrived in the early 2000s: Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Crouching Tiger was the more transcendently beautiful of the pair, but Hero was much closer to a speed I could easily keep up with in my hyperactive, cheap thrills-craving mind. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the goofier, trashier genre payoffs of Hero were not at all uncommon with the classic Chinese wuxia epics that preceded it. Wuxia films can be long, reflective, and overly patient, but they can also be wildly goofy in their isolated genre thrills. I recently took a rare opportunity to see one of the defining films of the genre, King Hu’s 200min epic A Touch of Zen, in digital restoration on the big screen and was surprised to discover how much over-the-top, delirious fun it was willing to have with its martial arts payoffs, as patiently as they arrived. A Touch of Zen was basically the goofiness of Hero at the austere pace of Crouching Tiger, giving me a much better understanding of what the wuxia genre can offer, as long as you’re willing to afford it over three hours’ running time.

Oddly, my impatience with A Touch of Zen mostly manifested in its first hour, which is largely expository & action-free. The opening beats of the film are a slow-motion sinking into Nature, patiently observing the mountainside greenery & nighttime spiderwebs of Japanese provinces in an establishment of the film’s upcoming dichotomy in settings. This Nature photography serves as the film’s overture (there would be no intermission, unfortunately), the exact kind of mood-setter you’d typically expect from an overlong epic. The story it serves is an episodic journey that begins with a small-town artist living frugally with his overbearing mother in an abandoned temple. With no ambitions outside painting portraits & surviving the ghosts he’s superstitious of in their spooky squat, he dodges all pressures from his mother to marry & to become a respectable government bureaucrat. This changes with the arrival of a mysterious woman who takes residence in a neighboring squat, whom he initially mistakes for a ghost before taking her as a lover. The woman proves to be a fugitive from the Empire who, while in hiding, builds a small militia of martial arts masters to challenge the tyranny of encroaching government goons. In a gender-reversal of the typical damsel in distress dichotomy, she protects the artist from Empirical harm as their affair puts him at risk, fighting off entire armies with her physics-defying fighting skills while he cowers in awe. The affair eventually drags the artist away from the comfort of his “haunted” squat into a treacherous, spiritual journey in the wild mountainside terrain. The resulting battles are shockingly violent, spiritually transcendent, and often unashamedly silly, but require a patience with a quiet, darkly lit exposition that nearly constitutes the typical runtime of the smaller-scale genre gems I’m more used to watching. It’s the kind of slow-moving pleasure that’s greatly benefited by being experienced in the distraction-free environment of a theatrical screening; I just didn’t expect that its first act would be the most difficult to remain awake for.

A Touch of Zen is most impressive for its extravagant set pieces. Like the two most recent American action films to receive near-unanimous critical praise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout & Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is for the most part an episodic sequence of successive set pieces; it just happens to start with an hour of pre-action exposition that affords it the shape of a historical epic. The same gravity-defying, physics-transcending martial arts spectacle that’s become synonymous with the wuxia genre because of Crouching Tiger (at least in America) is on full display in A Touch of Zen. Warriors hop over roofs & take their swordfights to the impossible heights of treetops, lightly traveling across flimsy branches that could not support their weight short of an act of magic. The two most remarkable set pieces are an elaborate haunted house-themed prank involving mannequins & a cliffside confrontation with monks who can trigger forced enlightenment in their opponents with a strike to the skull. In isolation, they’re beautiful, admirably humorous achievements in pure cinema bliss. The question is whether they fully serve the needs of a larger epic when considered in sequence, of which I’m not so convinced. I’m always going to be on the hook for a story about a badass female warrior who takes on an entire empirical government, as ACAB. When considered as a whole, however, the sequencing of A Touch of Zen’s set pieces doesn’t appear to achieve a clear, fully satisfied narrative arc, but rather feels like a couple isolated pages torn from a much longer book. That’s a lot to ask for a film with a 200min runtime, no matter how occasionally transcendent. Maybe a greater familiarity with Chinese history referenced in the film would reshape how I think about how the episodic set pieces come together as a whole. As a trash-gobbling genre film enthusiast with an embarrassingly short attention span, however, I found the film’s payoffs to be a little too spread out & mired in mood-setting Nature photography to full convince me that I need to sink further into the niche cinema of wuxia epics. The film did initiate me to the full beauty & unashamed goofiness that the genre is capable of in a way I wasn’t previously aware, which is almost enough to convince me to push through my childish impatience to pursue this subject further.

-Brandon Ledet

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