A Touch of Zen (1971)

‘A Touch of Zen’, directed by King Hu in 1971, is a Hong Kong and Taiwanese wuxia movie. Gu, a mild-mannered rural portrait painter in medieval China, is drawn into a plot of political intrigue and spiritual superheroes. This is a strange, rambling film with wild shifts in tone that, for someone not steeped in this genre, may find alienating. By the same director as the 1966 classic ‘Come Drink with Me’, this film has the same mixture of religion and corrupt politics, but here this is balanced against a strange mysticism. Highlights of the film include an acrobatic fight in a bamboo forest, a scene with levitating monks that Mark Cousins cited as ground-breaking in ‘The Story of Film’, and an ending that manages to be both simple and profoundly enigmatic. The strengths of this film are its cinematography and editing. There are moments in which Hu combines sound, light and movement to create something entirely original, and other moments of shocking modernity such as the use of split screen to describe an action scene. There is a focus on nature and the position of humanity within the natural world that connects it with Tarkovsky but also Kurosawa: I found myself recalling the Japanese director’s adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, ‘Throne of Blood’ in parts of this film. This film influences later movies on my list such as ‘House of Flying Daggers’ and ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, and as such formed the basis for many Hollywood action movies in the 1990s.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s long though, so starting with ‘Come Drink with Me’ might be a better place to start. Watch in a double bill with ‘Throne of Blood’.

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