Movies We Like
A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen is a 1971 wǔxiá film. Wǔxiá is a type of martial arts film from China which takes place in a mythical golden age or even parallel world (Jiang Hu) wherein fighters attained levels of skill never seen in our time; allowing them to run across water and trees as well as achieve near perfect aim and defensive moves. The plots concern warriors who live by codes of honor based on Buddhist principles which frequently place them at odds with the law enforced by corrupt authorities. The Communist government of China banned the genre in the 20th century, not having to strain hard to see how the genre could be used to attack them. During the reforms of the 1980s, the ban was finally lifted, resulting in more recent, Chinese-produced films wǔxiá films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero or Chen Kaige’s the Promise.
Filming for A Touch of Zen began in 1969 (during the Chinese ban) in Taiwan where, along with Hong Kong, wǔxiá flourished after beginning in silent era. Set in the 14th century, it’s seen through the eyes of Ku, an un-ambitious, nerdy painter who lives with his mother in a decaying, abandoned fort believed by the superstitious locals to be haunted. When the mysterious Yang Hui-Ching crosses his path, he’s immediately smitten with the icy stranger. To his surprise and delight, she beds him and then she fills him in on her background – she’s a fugitive being pursued by a Eunuch named Wei who murdered her father and is now seeking to obliterate her entire family. Ku’s eager to help and, combining his scholarly background and Yang’s out-of-this-world fighting ability, they route her pursuers.
Yang disappears, taking refuge in a distant monastery maintained by an abbot, Hui Yuan. There she gives birth to Ku’s son (having apparently slept with Ku merely to continue her family line) and now lives as a nun. Now she’s pursued by Ku as well as more of Wei’s flunkies. The inevitable showdown is an amazing fight which takes place in a bamboo forest which is so well choreographed and visually stunning that it may stand as the single most influential scene in wǔxiá history.
King Hu, a veteran of the Shaw Brothers studio, was notable for having introduced several aspects into the wǔxiá genre which are now mainstays such as a sense of humor and stylistic conventions – many of which are very similar to those in contemporaneous Spaghetti Westerns. It won the Grand Prix de Technique Superieur at Cannes and was the first Chinese film to win there. The screen is frequently full of striking, saturated colors, lens flares and billowing fog. The shots are composed dramatically and the cuts are lightning-quick at times. In the midst of battles there are often pregnant pauses as the warriors catch their breath and compose themselves after springing over walls and trees. Frequent silences (accompanied only by the sound of wind) are suddenly punctuated by the whistle of missiles, clanging swords or rustling silk.
So, if you aspire to righteousness and dream about running across falling leaves with sword in hand, check out one of the best and earliest wǔxiás currently available on DVD.