A Touch of Zen

Directed by King Hu

Starring Hsu Feng, Tien Peng, Roy Chiao, Shih Chun and Pai Ying

Ming dynasty noblewoman Yang must escape from the evil eunuch Hsu. She seeks refuge at a decrepit town where she gets assistance from a naive scholar & a group of mysterious yet powerful monks.

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  • ★★★★★ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd

    casts nature as mysterious, tangled but carefully deliberate, and casts reformers combating totalitarianism as potential ghosts, the past returning to claim its place, the dead returning to vanquish their living betrayers. Hu famously continues to restore to film from Chinese literature the female knight, another piece of the past that now points forward. and the male hero finds his strength only after he sleeps with her and meets the Abbot; the power here is sexual, literally balls to bones, naturally emanating from within. the villain, corrupt and unseen, is a eunuch; his power is baseless, empty, founded on lies. sex vs death. the film folds themes in so gradually that you truly float down the river without ever seeming to get wet.

  • ★★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd

    Someday, some enterprising company is going to restore and rerelease these King Hu movies and then they're going to get a whole lot of my money.

  • ★★★★★ review by Joe on Letterboxd

    It's probably a good five minutes before we see any human beings in A Touch of Zen - before that it's the title sequence, then some close-ups of insects in spider's webs, and various shots of water, trees, light, nature at rest. It's like a soft prayer before the story begins, and it's your first clue that this is no typical kung-fu action movie, containing almost none of the genre's usual concessions to audience attention spans. Even when the action does start up, it's pretty removed from the expected Shaw Bros. athleticism, instead punctuated by long stretches of patient waiting in between the jump-cut-aided fight choreography, just outside physical reality as we (think) we know it.

  • ★★★★★ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd

    100

    As dreamy as the rivers in which we seek nourishment and as haunting as the figures which impede the voids which we yearn to observe in the darkness. One of those movies that check every box on the list and even invent a few new categories just for the hell of it.

  • ★★★★★ review by Edgar Cochran on Letterboxd

    Matthew Ekstrom's #1 Film Selection for Edgar

    Impossible to fight against its power... Impossible to be overwhelmed by its technical brilliance...

    I cannot fight against it!

    Screened at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and winning a Technical Grand Prize, King Hu's massively influential, multifaceted work of art Xia nü became the first Mandarin language film ever to win a major western film festival award.

    Still, the size and scope of the film overshadow this fact, almost transforming it into a futile piece of trivia.

    With a massive array of both philosophical and technical offerings, the massively underappreciated Taiwanese treasure has the most unusual capacity to transform itself into something else with each episodic advancement it makes through time:

    1) It is first a seemingly simple drama with comedic relief derived from the relationship between the protagonist and his mother.

    2) It then provides a misleading hint about a potential romance in the middle of a possible political intrigue.

    3) Then, the most fundamental aspect of it all arises from a modern point of view: the movie proceeds to confirm its reputation as the most cinematically relevant influence on the wuxia genre.

    4) Then, the protagonist becomes a secondary character after orchestrating a landmark event in the film, which decides the destinies and outcomes of many. He is afterwards sent to a journey of spiritual redemption and self-acceptance.

    5) Leaving this now-secondary character into a personal journey with a new life aiming, the film decides to change its focus and unleashes an epic, cataclysmic confrontation between two forces, with memorable and drastically dissonant personifications of "good" and "evil".

    6) It ends with a thought-provoking note on the transcendence of our actions and how, maybe, "good" is an inert force capable of restoring the balance of an evil world by itself, and we are just the vehicles of that invisible force meant to fight against tangible and intangible armies, despite the limitations imposed by our human condition.

    Several times it has been mentioned that Xia nü is a notorious influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). It is an important mention, because that parallelism goes beyond the martial arts choreography, and the rural settings and natural landscapes. Both have extremely similar, periodic philosophical and/or Buddhist reflections of the futility of violence and the meaning of our existence. This heavy substance adds meaning to the entire story. Both have a very similar way to conclude. Earthly circumstances and personal stories are intentionally left unfinished for leaving room for the metaphysical to close an epic story. Yimou Zhang's contributions to the wuxia genre also carry the essence of King Hu, but mainly from a visual point of view, especially House of Flying Daggers (2004).

    It is not only because of its vision that King Hu's celluloid elephant deserves its still pending reputation. In short, it is because it is a project with a big heart emptied all over it, sprinkled with fragments of glory throughout. Films bringing the limitations of the human condition to the surface and simultaneously exalting it while making us think about transcendental themes are, in my book, really admirable.

    98/100

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