Touch of Zen, A
Hong Kong
Directed by King Hu.

The legendary King Hu begins his movie as if it is a Pu Songling tale, then turns it into a political intrigue and, still later, a religious meditation.

A Touch of Zen begins with a spider, and a web. Then another one, then another. Then shots of mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets. I pop the tape out to make sure I haven't accidentally put in a National Geographic special, but no, it says A Touch of Zen so I put it back in. And as the story unfolds, all of the implications of the opening scene become more clear. The sweeping panorama of nature sets the stage for what becomes a majestic tale on a grand scale. The spider web is symbolic of the narrative, which slowly spins layer upon layer until you are lost within its many strands. And as the first line of dialog doesn't occur until seven minutes into the film, it makes it abundantly clear that this is going to be a very, very long movie.

A capsule summary of the film might look like this: An upright government official uncovers a conspiracy against the emperor headed by the powerful and influential Eunuch Wei, who finds out and kills the official and his entire family. Only his daughter manages to escape, with two loyal friends, who together with a scholar must make a last stand against the armies of Eunuch Wei in an abandoned fortress. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it? But it isn't.

The storyline doesn't so much progress as evolve. It can be broken down into three acts, which might also be compared to stages of man's development. In the first act, we are mired in Superstition. Act two reveals a complicated Political struggle. And in act three, we have transcended earthly politics and found Religion.

Act One: Superstition

When A Touch of Zen begins, it hardly seems to be a political intrigue. Rather it is the story of a scholar, Ku Shen-chai, who has not gone to take his exams, working in a small frontier town, where he writes and draws portraits for an income to support himself and his mother, who live on the edge of town just outside abandoned Ching Lu Fort. A stranger, who soon introduces himself as Ou-Yang Yin, arrives and asks for his portrait to be done. He chats amiably with Ku, who is startled by the man's demeanor, and the sparkle in his eyes. A literal sparkle, by the way. Like you see on teeth in an old toothpaste ad. Before Ku can worry to much about the man, he leaves, pursuing the town's herbalist for a while.

Ku heads home only to find another mysterious stranger, this time a woman, who has taken up residence in the supposedly haunted fort itself. Ku feels perhaps she is a ghost, and puts up some talismans and waves around a wooden sword for a while, but his mother, having already made her aquaintance, puts his mind at ease. His mother tries to set them up for marriage, but she doesn't take even the slightest interest.

Many viewers, when this film was first released, understood immediately what was happening in this story, and watched it unfold with interest. They knew this story, having read it or heard of it at some point before. It was an adaptation of a story from Pu Songling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, about a gallant lady and a charming fox, and the scholar caught in the middle. In fact the Chinese title for A Touch of Zen is translated to English as The Gallant Lady. H.A.Giles, in his translation of the story, titles it "The Magnanimous Girl."

Read the story which inspired A Touch Of Zen,
The Magnanimous Girl

Knowing the story then, many viewers knew what to expect. The Gallant Lady, whom we learn is named Yang Hui-Ching, would eventually fight and kill the fox. And in fact, after a romantic night of passion in which the scholar and the warrior woman jump each other (while we (the audience) are treated to another montage of nature shots), Ou-yang Yin tracks Miss Yang down, and they engage in combat, where thanks to their incredible swordfighting skills and a lot of carefully concealed trampolines, they fight and jump around all over the place. It's Ou-yang Yin vs. Miss Yang. That's right: Yin v. Yang. We see the fight from Ku's subjective point of view, which is to say not very well. The fighters move too quickly, and even though he tries to run after them to see what is happening, he and the camera are soon left far behind. Ku is still at a loss for what is going on between his friend Ou-yang Yin, and his neighbor, the girl, when the magistrate sends for him, and in a few short lines of dialog between the magistrate and the scholar, the supernatural world of Pu Songling evaporates, and act one comes to a close.

Act Two: Politics

Act two is comprised of two parts. The first is an extended flashback, in which Miss Yang, who is now dubbed Miss Exposition, reveals her plight and the circumstances of her father's death. We learn of General Shih and Lu, the two men who helped her escape. We learn that Ou-Yang Yin is not a fox at all, but a Captain in Eunuch Wei's army, who has hunted Miss Yang to the ends of the empire. The second part is the defense of the fort by our stalwart heroes against the army of Eunuch Wei, led by the general Mun Ta. Here the scholar proves his usefulness by devising a cunning strategy based on his own, earlier, superstitious fears. He remembers a conversation he had with Ou-Yang Yin earlier about ghosts. "Confucious does not believe in superstition," Ku said to his then companion, who replied, "Well, as for myself, I rather believe in ghosts." And though Ku might have once, he is beyond such thoughts now. But the enemy is not. Although the forces of evil are vast, and powerful beyond measure, yet they are always a step behind our heroes in terms of their development, both spiritual and intellectual.

The seige is a fabulous battle. In fact I was sure it was the climactic battle. Two hundred soldiers against a handful of loyal men(and a woman). When the dust settles, the scholar surveys the damage, then finds to his dismay that Miss Yang is missing, no one knows where. He rushes off to find her. Behind him, a group of Zen monks grab shovels and spades. They have a lot of bodies to bury.

Act Three: Religion

Ku travels ceaselessly in search of Miss Yang. Months pass. Thankfully this is represented in a montage no longer than the one that started the film. When at last he finds Miss Yang, he also discovers the monks have beaten him there. She's given up the political world for the monastery. Ku doesn't even get to see her. However, in the interim she's had a child -- their child, which she promptly fobs off on him and sends him packing. He leaves, sadly, through the forest, there is another nature montage, the sun is setting, the music reaching its creshendo, fade to black...? Not so fast.

If this were any ordinary movie, it surely would have ended by now. But A Touch of Zen is made of sterner stuff. And anyway, it is not a film simply about a ghost story. Nor is it a tale of Ming dynasty political intrigue. Rather, King Hu had something more in mind. We still haven't gotten our touch of Zen. Though as it turns out, its more of an ass-kicking smack of Zen, but hey, so much the better.

Out of nowhere comes Hsu Hsien-Chun, the Commander-in-Chief of Eunuch Wei's armies, and his two personal bodyguards. They are hot on Scholar Ku's trail, when Miss Yang and General Shih come out of their short-lived monastic life to fight. But they are no match for the Commander and his men (one of whom is a very young Sammo Hung). So the head monk himself comes out and shows everyone what its all about.

A Touch of Zen is almost three hours long. But it's worth it. The last battle takes up over twenty minutes, and it is truly amazing. The head monk (Roy Chaio) is simply fantastic. He fights, but only in self defence. He embodies the tenants of Zen. When he looks at you, the force of the sun is behind his gaze. When he moves, he is one with the wind. When he bleeds, he bleeds gold, for god's sake. When the battle is over, we've learned one very important lesson: don't ever, EVER, no matter how evil you are, no matter how powerful you are, NEVER stab the head monk in the gut. You will regret it, I guarantee. Just an FYI.

There are moments of Zen throughout the movie, before finally culminating with the sound of one hand smacking in Act Three. When the scholar and the warrior maiden consummate their lust, it is after she sings a nice little tune to the effect of Be Here Now. Life is fleeting, lets enjoy it while we can, because we may not exist tomorrow. And enjoy it they do, after which they never have a moment of quiet together. And when the scholar devises his plan to defend the fort, he emulates nature, becoming the spider, spinning his web, waiting for his prey to fall into his trap.

This is a very important film from a legendary director. But if you haven't seen any films by King Hu before, its a little disconcerting. It doesn't really look nor feel like you might expect a Hong Kong movie would. King Hu's style predates the Bruce Lee craze, he comes well before Jackie Chan. Instead, the model of the action picture he worked with came at that time from Japan: Samurai movies. King Hu was the first Hong Kong director that was able to take the aesthetics of the samurai movie, and then further add to it to create his own style of skillful swordfighters who could jump, run, and move faster than the eye could see or the camera could capture. Highly recommended.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 02, 2004.

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