Gu (Shih Chun) is an artist in a small town in China during the Ming Dynasty, a time of great turmoil and corruption for the nation, so he opts for a quiet life away from all that hubbub, it’s not anything he needs as he prefers to paint portraits and landscapes in his shop, making his money on commissions. He lives in the village with his mother who is always nagging him to take the exam to become a civil servant for that’s where she believes a better income lies, and also to marry a nice girl since she doesn’t wish her family to end with him, but he is in no hurry. His home is next to an old fort which housed the home of a General, but is now abandoned, so why does he think there is someone living there? Could the old place be haunted?
Not really, for though the original short story A Touch of Zen was based on featured a supernatural element, writer and director King Hu preferred to take the spiritual path in depicting the worlds in other planes of existence to ours, as you would discover if you reached the end of well nigh three hours of this. Not that it dragged, as while it was a real marathon it nevertheless flew by, as did many of the characters in the style of the wuxia martial arts movies that emerged to huge success from Hong Kong and in this case, Taiwan around this era, lending the proponents of the combat incredible powers of agility that would inform the superhero genre of the twenty-first century, never mind the Far Eastern efforts in that vein continuing for decades into their future.
So swordplay was the real draw here, though there was kung fu as well, but that said Hu took his own sweet time in getting to the action, preferring to set out what many regarded as his masterpiece as a ghost story first. This was befitting the stories of Pu Songling which inspired him, and after hitting it big with successes like Dragon Inn and Come Drink with Me he wished to craft a true epic, both in visual splendour and in emotional impact, so he may have been working with far lower budget than he really needed, but his skill proved adept enough to transcend what means he was offered and bring something quite magical to the screen. Or that was the idea, but three hour long films were a tough sell for Asian audiences, and to his dismay the thing was cut up into two halves, which flopped, then made into a two hour version. Which flopped.
It wasn't until the full version edited to his specifications was released in 1975 - and bear in mind this project was started in 1967 - that audiences were able to understand Hu’s vision and applaud his ambition. Once it has dispensed with the ghost story element as Gu realises the old temple isn't haunted but the hideout of Miss Yang (Hsu Feng) who has mysterious connections to the scheming government he wants so little to do with, the plot began to expand like ripples on a pond, taking in secret agents, Buddhist monks with incredible abilities thanks to their preternatural zen calm, and the expected romance that doesn’t play out in an expected manner, among other things. After a while, Gu had rivals for being the main character as it became an ensemble piece, complicating itself yet remaining perfectly understandable, a feast for the mind.
And, one supposes Hu hoped, the soul as well, as Gu is drawn into something resembling an actual life where there were aspects worth fighting for and not merely watching from the sidelines passively. Not that he was too adept at the hand to hand skirmishes, but he does have talents of strategy that assist Yang and her allies in battling the government forces (curiously, the director extrapolated the source short story into a condemnation of the James Bond series as he believed leaders of no nation had the right to send out representatives who were allowed to behave with carte blanche in the world). This wouldn’t be up to much if it didn't look so exactingly exquisite, with superb locations, specially built sets, some of which had been left to decay for months to offer them just the right appearance, and those action setpieces. Yes, that bamboo forest battle has been copied long afterwards (step forward Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but in each of the fights Hu eschewed music to choreograph them to the sound of the participants' clothes, footsteps and weaponry, which was mesmerising. Building to a truly cosmic conclusion, A Touch of Zen was a deservedly revered landmark, up there with its contemporaries The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or 2001: A Space Odyssey as among the pinnacles of its form.
Aka: Xia nü
[Eureka's Blu-ray has a superb, restored print, the best this has looked in decades, and a bonus disc featuring a documentary on King Hu plus a video essay. There's also a selected scene commentary and trailer on the main disc, and a booklet with lots of background information. This is a limited edition of 3000.]