A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen ★★★★★

Matthew Ekstrom's #1 Film Selection for Edgar

Impossible to fight against its power... Impossible to be overwhelmed by its technical brilliance...

I cannot fight against it!

Screened at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and winning a Technical Grand Prize, King Hu's massively influential, multifaceted work of art Xia nü became the first Mandarin language film ever to win a major western film festival award.

Still, the size and scope of the film overshadow this fact, almost transforming it into a futile piece of trivia.

With a massive array of both philosophical and technical offerings, the massively underappreciated Taiwanese treasure has the most unusual capacity to transform itself into something else with each episodic advancement it makes through time:

1) It is first a seemingly simple drama with comedic relief derived from the relationship between the protagonist and his mother.
2) It then provides a misleading hint about a potential romance in the middle of a possible political intrigue.
3) Then, the most fundamental aspect of it all arises from a modern point of view: the movie proceeds to confirm its reputation as the most cinematically relevant influence on the wuxia genre.
4) Then, the protagonist becomes a secondary character after orchestrating a landmark event in the film, which decides the destinies and outcomes of many. He is afterwards sent to a journey of spiritual redemption and self-acceptance.
5) Leaving this now-secondary character into a personal journey with a new life aiming, the film decides to change its focus and unleashes an epic, cataclysmic confrontation between two forces, with memorable and drastically dissonant personifications of "good" and "evil".
6) It ends with a thought-provoking note on the transcendence of our actions and how, maybe, "good" is an inert force capable of restoring the balance of an evil world by itself, and we are just the vehicles of that invisible force meant to fight against tangible and intangible armies, despite the limitations imposed by our human condition.

Several times it has been mentioned that Xia nü is a notorious influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). It is an important mention, because that parallelism goes beyond the martial arts choreography, and the rural settings and natural landscapes. Both have extremely similar, periodic philosophical and/or Buddhist reflections of the futility of violence and the meaning of our existence. This heavy substance adds meaning to the entire story. Both have a very similar way to conclude. Earthly circumstances and personal stories are intentionally left unfinished for leaving room for the metaphysical to close an epic story. Yimou Zhang's contributions to the wuxia genre also carry the essence of King Hu, but mainly from a visual point of view, especially House of Flying Daggers (2004).

It is not only because of its vision that King Hu's celluloid elephant deserves its still pending reputation. In short, it is because it is a project with a big heart emptied all over it, sprinkled with fragments of glory throughout. Films bringing the limitations of the human condition to the surface and simultaneously exalting it while making us think about transcendental themes are, in my book, really admirable.


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