PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

A Gaggle of Ghosts, a Brace of Bamboo, 'A Touch of Zen'

King Hu's martial arts masterpiece is a long, moody, beautiful, unpredictable film.

A Touch of Zen

Director: King Hu
Cast: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1971
USDVD release date: 2016-07-19

King Hu is among the most important and idiosyncratic creators of the modern martial arts film, but his films have been tough to see in the digital era. In Region 1, the only one to receive an official subtitled release on DVD is his 1966 debut for Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers, Come Drink With Me, a milestone for its motifs of the drunken hero, a swordswoman, and an inn.

Thanks to the restoration efforts of its star, Hsu Feng, Hu's three-hour epic A Touch of Zen is now available on Criterion, and we hope it presages more of the same.

This is a long, moody, beautiful, unpredictable film. To give an idea of how Hu broke the conventions as soon as he created them, he presents a martial arts film that takes almost an hour before we get to the first fight -- none of modern Hollywood's "grab 'em in the first ten minutes" jazz. The hero seems to be a bashful artist and scholar played by a foxlike Shih Chun, giving a slyly mannered and theatrical performance.

He lives in an abandoned fort with his nagging mom (Zhang Bing), who wants to hook him up with a poor neighbor (Hsu Feng). The latter eventually reveals herself to be a master swordswoman fleeing from injustice, and then the battles begin.

Here, to the viewer's wondering eyes, is the original fight in a bamboo forest that inspired similar scenes in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (2004). Hu spent a long time on his set pieces -- the entire film took three years and was originally released in two parts -- and his approach to action combines graceful camera moves with frantic disorienting montage.

The final Zen confrontation between a Buddhist abbot (Roy Chiao) and the almost final-final bad guy (Han Ying-jie, the film's fight master), although we never get to those who pull his strings, is clearly Hu's attempt at a hallucinatory ending in the manner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out while Hu was preparing this film. By this point, we're following wherever its peculiar narrative instincts have led us. We've been prepared by the earliest false hints of ghosts for a journey to transcendance beyond the material wicked world and its petty battles. Few martial arts films go there.

The narrative shifts its center of focus more than once, and the final hour keeps misleading the viewer into thinking it's all over until something else happens. As David Bordwell says in his liner notes, this is a characteristic of the classic Chinese fiction of which Hu was a scholar, and he extrapolated this film from an incident in a classic collection of ghost stories. Although the film is set in the Ming dynasty, when a corrupt eunuch oversaw a secret organization of killers with an iron hand, Hu saw parallels in the modern world, as he himself explained in his own notes to his film's 1975 showing at Cannes:

The James Bond films were all the rage at the time, a trend of which I did not quite approve. To my mind, whatever the purpose of a secret service organization, when it becomes too powerful, it is bound to be harmful to the people. Of course, much of the action in the James Bond stories was sheer fantasy, but they were nevertheless extremely popular and could not but exert an unsanitary influence. For this reason, in A Touch of Zen I sought to expose some of the evil deeds of an organization such as the Eastern Depot.

Criterion's presentation meets their standards, although viewers will notice a few visual flaws, such as during the "ghost battle" aftermath, that appear to be part of the original photography or are otherwise uncorrectable. The lead actors are interviewed, along with Ang Lee. Scholar Tony Rayn discusses this film's lengthy Taiwan production and troubled release history. A one-hour documentary on Hu's career makes us hope we'll be able to see restorations of Dragon Gate Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan, The Valiant Ones, Raining in the Mountain, Legend of the Mountains and others that have proven elusive.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.