Featuring a steady flow of exquisite images, A Touch of Zen takes the martial-arts genre to places it rarely goes, prioritizing characterization, pictorial wonderment, and spirituality as highly as action and dramatic tension. Produced and set in Taiwan, the picture takes place in the medieval past, with a simple painter drawn into complex intrigue, so even though the narrative inevitably involves martial-arts masters, A Touch of Zen doesn’t follow the usual frenetic template of bridging violent scenes with as little transitional material as possible. Written and directed by King Hu, the epic story sprawls across three hours, and the pacing is leisurely, so some viewers will find their patience tested waiting for the action to begin. Prior to that juncture, Hu creates an intoxicating mood while also building mysteries and illuminating characters. He’s not equally successful in each of these endeavors, and if there’s a major criticism here, it’s that A Touch of Zen is more of an aesthetic and intellectual exercise than an emotional experience. That said, it’s to Hu’s great credit that the picture commands attention as well as it does. The premise is interesting enough to carry things along, the payoff is unusual, and the style is intoxicating.
Gu Sheng-tsai (Shih Chun) is an impoverished daydreamer who makes a meager living doing calligraphy and portraits from a storefront inside a ramshackle fort that several poor families have transformed into a makeshift village. He lives with his hectoring mother, who complains that Gu is over 30 but directionless and unmarried. When a beautiful young woman named Yang hui-zhen (Hsu Feng) moves into a nearby residence, Gu’s mother tries to arrange a marriage, but Yang refuses. Then another stranger arrives in town, and it emerges that the stranger is an agent from the tyrannical East Chamber, sent to find and capture Yang, a fugitive wanted by the despotic regime. Once the stranger discovers Yang’s whereabouts, he attacks her, but she defends herself with a spectacular display of martial-arts prowess, even defying gravity by leaping onto rooftops. Gu is beguiled by her mastery, and, upon learning about her past, he aligns with her cause, so he becomes a companion during her subsequent adventures.
Toward the third hour of A Touch of Zen, the story expands to include wandering monks who use their superlative martial-arts skills to aid Yang, hence the religious connotations of the title. Yet the involvement of the monks isn’t the picture’s only supernatural element, because during the mesmerizing combat sequence that comprises the movie’s centerpiece, Gu cleverly exploits widespread beliefs that the fort is haunted. A Touch of Zen is so long, moving through so many distinct phases, that the plot splinters into abstraction. The movie also gifts certain characters with abilities far beyond those of normal humans, as during the breathtaking fight that takes place in a misty bamboo forest. (The acrobatics of A Touch of Zen were among the influences on Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)
In some ways, A Touch of Zen is a flight of fancy, seeing as how a goodhearted everyman becomes the consort to a supernatural warrior against a backdrop of demigods waging a titanic battle of good versus evil. And yet in other ways, A Touch of Zen is a meditation on existentialism, as demonstrated by the provocative ambiguities of the final scene and the implication of mortals and immortals communing to deliver a messiah. Therefore, perhaps the most fascinating thing about A Touch of Zen that it offers so much fodder for interpretation amid its visceral and visual delights.
A Touch of Zen: GROOVY