A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen ★★★★

Using what critical facilities I have when it comes to 1960s-70s Asian cinema (ie. fairly limited), what is striking to me in the work of King Hu is how pointedly different it is from an action choreographer like Lau Kar-Leung. Notably, Hu's action is at one more simple and more fantastic. The sequences here (which the first only happens after an hour of set up) are built on notably longer takes (meaning at least a 4-5 ASL during action), often shot from a distance, and most notably are built around pausing. The too oft-repeated "kung fu like ballet" doesn't seem as appropriate here - the action is built around one or two careful blows followed by long pauses where the combatants look at each other, waiting for the next move. It's awkward in a good way - it feels authentic in the way one hears the breathes and essentially feels each of these guys thinking through the action. This striking fact is then oscillated through Hu's jump cuts (Kevin B Lee has a good piece on them here), where the action takes on a mystical quality that these people seem less trained than ordained by some higher purpose. Hu's action is ridiculously exciting because of these unexpected elements, so when the truly accomplished bamboo forest sequence was replayed in Part II, it was a welcome return.

The higher purpose, as with Hu, is Buddha. A Touch of Zen is a film that slowly works its way up a hierarchy - from the lowly artist peasant, to the outcast princess, to the regional commander, to finally the group of monks. The monks never attack, but instead force those who attack them to see the pettiness of physical action, which leads all the way into until the final sequence, which recalls the psychedelic journey of 2001 in its color distortion of landscape, where their leader is revealed as none other than the Buddha. It's a striking finale for the film in terms of its function in the narrative. For the first two hours, A Touch of Zen is often funny and thrilling, but the narrative if anything reminded me of something like A Fistful of Dollars (itself a remake of a Kurosawa film - who Hu cites as an influence), which is to say it struck me as something that is easily translatable to a Western audience.* But the shifts not in goal-oriented protagonists to something beyond this Earth and more spiritual is something completely absent in almost all Western cinema. Needless to say, it's both beguiling and thrilling.

*That Hu's final film was to be a Western about the founding of the railroad, shot in the United States, is one of the great losses of cinema.