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.