Heading East: A Touch of Zen (1971)
Jaime brings to you his first entry in his column, Heading East, focusing on the essentials of Asian cinema.
King Hu’s A Touch of Zen is arguably the greatest and most important martial arts film ever to have graced the screen, but what has allowed such an epic entry into the genre to stand out amongst the many other smaller martial arts films we know and recognize? It would be easy to note that King Hu’s epic was one among many influences for Ang Lee’s own Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but why this film of the many other wuxia ("martial hero") films of its own generation?
One will already note the beautiful scenery from start to finish being amidst many fleeting moments of eye candy, but this was never a surprising thing about what made wuxia films nearly half as great as they are. Again, coming to note the beauty of the action sequences, what also allows such a story to stand atop all others, is how it’s always willing to sprawl as much as it wishes.
Length has never always been the healthiest part, even for the action genre, but to see how much A Touch of Zen is making of its three-hour runtime is to realize how its length suits such a work so beautifully. A Touch of Zen isn’t the martial arts film for the viewer who wants to see action all throughout, but just like one would expect of a film that has laid its own influence upon Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a more contemplative nature is present in the film.
It’s interesting to see how one can classify A Touch of Zen as “contemplative action”; the film stands still during long periods of time, as if it were in waiting. A Touch of Zen is a Buddhist film and it is rife with Buddhist themes from beginning to end. Maybe a fitting descriptor would be “Buddhist cinema” when speaking in regards to what it is representative of, for what it embodies is a spirit to which it is attuning itself to all throughout. Yet for how much it feels so attuned to this culture, its ability to pull a viewer into a different realm, as suggested by this environment which King Hu is creating, is what enables A Touch of Zen to stand out from all other martial arts films.
There’s another degree to which it can bring back memories of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — in the sense that the bulk of how much both films conjure allows for something so hard-hitting, beautiful, and at the same time, so entertaining. For the extremely patient viewer, what A Touch of Zen manages to leave behind is one of the most rewarding experiences that they will ever treat themselves to. A Touch of Zen shows what Seven Samurai has managed to accomplish, with how much it can blend entertainment and philosophy through the inspiring nature of such films, now within the environment of a martial arts film.
But, how does one begin to talk about how overwhelming of a product this is when you can simply go ahead and see it? The bamboo forest sequence alone is still one of the very best things to have been put on film, that there is something I can assure anyone of. A Touch of Zen is the very definition of perfection.