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