By The Sword: A Touch Of Zen

Concluding Spank The Monkey’s two-part examination of Taiwanese martial arts cinema, past and present.

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It may be a coincidence: it may have been cunning planning on someone’s part. But for the purposes of these reviews, it’s certainly convenient that three days after the UK theatrical release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, we get the Blu-ray premiere of King Hu’s A Touch Of Zen, another Taiwanese picture set in the martial world of wuxia. Made in 1971, it’s widely considered to be the apex of Hu’s career as a director, and a huge influence on every subsequent film in the genre – including, you’d presume, The Assassin. Although if a recent interview in Sight & Sound magazine is to be believed, that isn’t the case: Hou says that he grew up watching and reading martial arts stories, but has no clear recollection of Hu’s work.

Sometimes you get the impression that there are directors out there who just don’t enjoy cinema.

Hu does, there’s no question about that – his grasp of the visual language of movies still astonishes to this day. Which makes it all the more shocking how poorly treated his legacy has been. Up until last year, his 1967 classic Dragon Inn was virtually unavailable to an English-speaking audience: I personally own a terrifying-looking Video CD of the film made from a battered Hong Kong cinema print, where the images had two layers of subtitles physically burned onto them before being cropped to 4:3. Eureka Entertainment came to the rescue in 2014 with a magnificently restored Blu-ray of the film, backed up with a comprehensive set of bonus features. A Touch Of Zen hasn’t been quite as lost to us as the earlier movie, but Eureka have done it proud to a similar degree.

Comparing the two films, now that we have pristine copies of both, makes for an interesting exercise. Dragon Inn is a narrative-driven, pure entertainment flick – in the first minute, a narrator briskly announces who the two sides are in conflict with each other, and we’re dropped straight into the action. A Touch Of Zen, meanwhile, is aiming for something a little more epic, as its three-hour running time suggests. It starts off slowly with a series of spookily atmospheric shots of one of the key locations, the abandoned Jinglu Fort, intercut with some ravishing landscapes for contrast.

We’re gradually introduced to our protagonist, the painter Gu Shengzhai (Shi Jun). Although ‘protagonist’ may seem too strong a word for him, initially: he’s an ordinary man in his thirties, living with his mother, getting constantly nagged about his lack of ambition and not having a wife yet. His only real character trait is his curiosity, and it’s this which fuels his interest in a couple of new arrivals in town – the mysterious Ouyang Nian (Tian Peng), who comes to have a portrait painted but seems more interested in some of the townsfolk: and Yang Huizhen (Hsu Feng), a young woman of marriable age who moves into the fort next door to the Gu residence.

We’re almost halfway through the film before we find out exactly what links the two strangers, as well as a host of other recent arrivals to the town, notably a pair of herbalists and a blind fortune teller. Inevitably, as was the case in Dragon Inn, the connecting factor is a series of intrigues perpetrated by the villainous Eastern Group, the Ming Dynasty’s own secret police force run by a cabal of court eunuchs. Up until this point, Gu has purely acted as an observer: but a life of book-learning has given him an interest in military strategy, and he believes he can help bring the Eastern Group down.

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A Touch Of Zen, unlike Dragon Inn, has been available to English-speaking audiences for most of this century, thanks to a DVD released by Optimum in 2003. That disc was formatted for 4:3 screens, with the image pushed to the top of the frame and the subtitles positioned in the black area underneath. On a modern widescreen TV, the result is fuzzy and hard to watch. By comparison, the newly remastered Blu-ray is a revelation. Just comparing the impressionistic opening sequences on the two discs is proof enough: on the DVD they’re run-of-the-mill establishing shots, but on the Blu-ray they’re beautifully composed and coloured landscapes.

The remastering gives Hu’s visual skills the showcase they deserve. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien in The Assassin, he likes to obscure objects in the frame, usually with mist, smoke or dark shadows. A poor transfer could make these images look like mush, but here they work beautifully – everything you need to see is always visible. His camera placement is second to none, with dynamic movements establishing the relationships between people and objects, only pausing to frame them briefly in immaculately-composed tableaux. This is where Hu’s approach wins out over Hou’s, however: all of this visual style is in the service of the story. For example, the opening shots of the fort aren’t just there because they’re pretty: they also set up the air of supernatural mystery that will be crucial when we return to it a couple of hours later.

It’s this dedication to story that keeps us watching through the extraordinary epilogue that takes up the final half hour of the film. The colossal battle at Jinglu Fort would seem to be an obvious end point for the story, but for two dangling loose ends. Firstly, Yang Huizhen has mysteriously vanished: secondly, just killing a few Eastern Group leaders isn’t going to solve everyone’s problems, and a more radical approach is required. That approach, coming via the character of Abbot Huiyuan (Roy Chiao), finally explains the film’s title, while providing us with one final spectacular fight sequence, as well as the chance for some of us to point at the screen and say “ooh, look, it’s Sammo Hung.”

A Touch Of Zen ultimately proves what King Hu always believed: you can have it all. A film can be an action showcase, a historical drama, a Buddhist treatise and a work of visual art all at the same time. Hou Hsiao-Hsien never really stood a chance in comparison against him. Still, that’s the price you pay when you bring a paintbrush to a swordfight.

 A Touch Of Zen is available on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment from today.

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About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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