A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen ★★★★★

Landscapes of empty beauty dominate A Touch of Zen. Its characters are insects in a a web. This is the perfect wuxia movie. A film so in touch with its spiritual and historical premise, yet abundant in bursts of genre. Here is an epic with everything: comedy, action, atmosphere, philosophy, and style. This is a reductive statement, but I shall make it anyway, A Touch of Zen does for wuxia what Once Upon a Time in the West did for the western. It is a film not about being nothing, but one that examines the shallow actions that define its genre. What does it mean to kill? What was the state of history?

Across a long runtime that is achieved in a slow and meditative fashion, A Touch of Zen reaches transcendence. At first, our lead character is a scholar and an artist, over 30, unmarried, impoverished. He cites Confucius, but is unable to attain his potential. He is expected to become an official and conform to normal power structures. He is passive, spiritually unfulfilled. His society is conservative, as people remain passive throughout their lives. A Touch of Zen depicts feudalism as a form of totalitarian police state. The nation state is one of authoritarianism passed down hierarchies until implemented on the level of local magistrates, who fear only those above them. Society has become one of subservient individuals, not a collective whole. Harmony is not achieved.

What activates A Touch of Zen is the most stunning sex scene. Stunning in that it does not exist. The foreplay and aftermath are merely music and birdsong. Yet, at almost one hour in, it is that scene which initiates the action. Our male protagonist is drawn into something bigger than him. He has met a woman who defies gender roles. She understands the obligations of society enough to fulfill filial piety and give a man an heir, yet she has the strength to reject him and feudal era norms at large. She is part of the scholar-beauty dynamic of Chinese literature, yet she possesses no need for romance. A Touch of Zen is about undermining the norms of the material and embracing the inner. The action is implicitly criticised. Bodies are strewn out across the ground. To witness such death is maddening, to have partaken in it is a sign of a vacuity and emptiness. The value of human life has gone at that moment. A Touch of Zen is a film of human vulnerability, physically and spiritually.

Once upon a time in the East, there was bloodshed over the irrelevant. A Touch of Zen is heavily inflected with a Buddhist worldview. The material world is lesser than the spiritual, as the film's monks fight without weapons. Buddhism offers the characters redemption and peace, which can save them from their social position, which ties them to the world and not their soul. Yet all these beautiful ideas are told in a film of perfect action too. Every fight is fast, clear, and micro-choreographed. One battle amongst bamboo is awe-inspiring. A Touch of Zen is often nothing but a collection of beautiful shots. Yet the sunlight through the trees, the ghostly presence from beyond, and the beauty of so much darkness, is a rare concoction of pure cinematic visual poetry. The storytelling is elliptical, the philosophy is beautiful, and the harmony of everything makes for something truly special. It is three hours of perfection, concluding with a crescendo of enlightenment.

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