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A Touch of Zen
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"Witness my all-powerful backlighting!"

Roy Chiao is a fabulous monk in A Touch of Zen.
Year: 1971
Director: King Hu  
Producer: Sa Wing-Fung, Hsia Wu Liang-Fang
Action: Han Ying-Chieh, Poon Yiu-Kwan
Cast: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Tin Peng, Pai Ying, Han Ying-Chieh, Roy Chiao, Sammo Hung
The Skinny: Highly influential martial arts epic from acclaimed director King Hu. I liked it, but the film's three-hour running time can be a real drag. This ain't The Lord of the Rings, folks.
Review by

     For those wondering where the idea for that amazing "bamboo balancing act" in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came from, they need look no further than the 1971 epic, A Touch of Zen. Despite the former film's huge popularity, this King Hu classic is more than just a footnote in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon juggernaut. A Touch of Zen is no mere chopsocky flick, but instead a genre essential and a definite must-see for wuxia fans.
     In many ways, the A Touch of Zen works as a companion piece to the director's earlier wuxia effort, Dragon Gate Inn. As in that Ming Dynasty-set film, the heroes of A Touch of Zen are plagued by the machinations of a pesky East Chamber eunuch. But the focus of this film resides not just on upper-crust political maneuverings, but also on the role of the "little guy." In the first ninety minutes, we are introduced to Ku Shen-Chai (Shih Jun), the village scholar who enjoys a simple life and, despite his obvious intelligence, refuses to take the officer's exam. This vexes Shen-Chai's live-in mother, who constantly harasses him to find a real job, get a wife, and start producing some grandchildren. In a film that embodies the phrase "epic grandeur," the comic banter between this mother and son team is a welcome surprise.
     Shen-Chai encounters Ouyang Nin (Tin Peng), a mysterious visitor searching for two "criminals": Yang Hui-Ching (Hsu Feng) and General Shih (Pai Ying). For those viewers who've seen at least one Hong Kong film involving eunuchs, the fugitives' backstory will seem somewhat familiar: Yang and General Shih are on the run from the thoroughly corrupt, power-hungry Eunuch Wei. The problem stems from Yang's father, who apparently upset the Eunuch. The problem here is that when you offend a eunuch, he doesn't just kill you; he goes after your whole family. The eunuchs are like the mafia, just minus the testicles.
     Already curious about Ouyang Nin's presence, the scholar's normal life is thoroughly disrupted when Yang and General Shih find sanctuary in an abandoned estate near his home. Soon, a bond emerges between the unlikely allies, which catapults the action of the film's second half. From that point forward, the movie is crammed with plenty of intrigue and suspense. For starters, there's the aforementioned bamboo forest duel, which is followed by a last stand of sorts involving some traps and trickery in a "haunted" estate. Add to the mix the intervention of some badass Buddhist monks (led by scene stealer Roy Chiao), a pregnancy subplot, and a final, fateful battle against Hsu (Han Ying-Chieh), Eunuch Wei's chief commander, and you've got yourself one action-packed final act.
     But even in my praise, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the film's problems. The oft-mentioned bamboo forest duel is less than spectacular. Trampolines are creatively employed for the "flying," but the sequence is surprisingly short and lacks punch. King Hu's preoccupation with filming beautiful vistas is evident here (in fact, before he was replaced as director on 1990's Swordsman, all King Hu's Taiwanese shots were exteriors of palaces, bamboo woods, and waterfalls). However, even though the vistas are pretty, this continual footage of landscapes can sometimes disrupt the flow of the narrative. And even though the film is a veritable classic, the three-hour running time can be frustrating. Plenty of scenes could have been truncated or deleted altogether to improve the film, particularly in the meandering first half. There's a really good story here; King Hu just needed to trim some fat. Thankfully, at least Miramax wasn't involved.
     Despite my criticisms, I still think A Touch of Zen is redeemed by its compelling story, snappy choreography, and yes, beautiful cinematography—all of which outweigh any complaints about the daunting running time. King Hu takes his own sweet-ass time telling the overused storyline of "an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances," and still you somehow want to find out what happens. For that alone, A Touch of Zen and its director King Hu deserve praise. And hey, if that's not enough, this flick has got the coolest monks this side of Shaolin Soccer. (Calvin McMillin 2002)


A Touch of Zen was the first Chinese film ever to be recognized by the Cannes Film Festival
A young Sammo Hung cameos as an East Chamber flunky, referred to as "the fat one."
Besides Ang Lee, A Touch of Zen has another famous fan. John Carpenter has cited the film as an influence for his cult classic, Big Trouble in Little China.

Cannes Film Festival
Special Technical Award for "Superior Technique"

Region 0 NTSC
Tai Seng Video Marketing
Mandarin Language Track
English Subtitles
King Hu Filmography
    DVD (UK)
Region 2 PAL
Optimum Asia
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 1.0
English Subtitles
King Hu Filmography, Trailers

image courtesy of Tai Seng Video Marketing Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen