The Importance of Atmosphere in A Touch of Zen (1971)

Back in 2018, Brandon reviewed A Touch of Zen, a wuxia epic about a warrior noble woman on the run from a corrupt government in Ming Dynasty China. In the review, he appreciates the badass female character and the goofy fun, but laments the film’s epic length and wonders whether all of the nature photography and expository sequences make the payoff of the battles worth it.

Unlike Brandon, I love a good epic. It’s not that I necessarily have the focus and attention span for them, and the fact that so many don’t have an intermission is ridiculous. (When viewing at home, I usually force one in.) But I love the way a long runtime gives the plot room to breathe and lets the audience get a peek at the world building. Movies like Seven Samurai and Solaris are masterpieces to me. The extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my cinematic comfort food. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good, fast paced film. I am all about trash. (I do occasionally write for Swampflix after all.) It’s like comparing a 90 page novella with a 1000 page novel. If you like reading, they both have their time and place. A Touch of Zen is an epic and a masterpiece. Without the long run time, we’d never get to see the lush world of the film, which is something I really loved about it.

The atmosphere of A Touch of Zen is critical to the movie. It’s eye candy definitely—almost a travel brochure for China of the early 70’s—but it’s also part of the spirit and the plot of the film. This film isn’t just about a woman on the run finding zen; King Hu set out to translate the feel of zen within the film. He carefully controlled all the details, going so far as to build enormous and elaborate sets. At the beginning, the film takes place in the hometown of the main character Gu Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun). The town is small and sparsely populated, a remote place with an abandoned, rumored to be haunted, military barracks in the middle. This setting is misty and dark and unclear, which is to the advantage of the characters later on. It rains frequently. This early setting is the pre-zen world for our heroine, Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng). It lacks clarity. It’s literally bogged down. The abandoned and derelict surroundings are shrouded by weeds and overgrown grasses, littered with the remains of people long gone.

The area around the Buddhist monastery, however, is bright and stark. It’s smooth rocks, and clear water. Things are clear and visible and the light is blinding. This is where Yang finds her zen. This is where the audience sees other characters grapple with looking at zen straight in the eye, when the head of the Monastery stands tall about a villain and is lit brightly, mystifyingly from behind. Nothing about this space is cluttered with evidence of worldly affairs. It’s beautiful but uncomfortably bare. There’s no place to hide, but there’s a maze of large boulders eroded into curving surfaces with corners to duck behind. It’s a space of contradictions, which is a lot like zen philosophy itself.

Without the time to have a look around at these areas, would there even be a touch of zen in A Touch of Zen? I think if you look at it solely from a plot of the leading lady cloistering herself off from a world where she only has a future as a mother or a fugitive, then yes, but I’m going to say that that would be more of a slight brush against zen.

-Alli Hobbs

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