“A Touch of Zen,” a pinch of cinematic magic. [Old School Kung Fu Fest]

From the titular King of Wuxia, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen is what wuxia cinema is all about.

In this groundbreaking entry in the genre, a poor scholar named Gu (Shih Chun) paints the portrait of a mysterious stranger while attempting to woo his beautiful new neighbor Ms. Yang (Hsu Feng). Weaving his way past spider’s prey and haunted rooms, Gu finds himself trapped in the same web of mystery and danger as his prospective beau, his meddling setting off an epic chain reaction that will quietly play out across the nation.

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Roy Chiao as Abbot Hui Yuan in A TOUCH OF ZEN. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

A battle of the spiritual and moral vs. deceiving doubters, Hang Ying-Chieh’s choreography is the highlight of the film. Not yet able to achieve all the high-flying wire work of later wuxia films, this 1970 film excels in the sword fight, informing character and desire with every swing. The confident swings of Ouyang Nin contrast with Mr. Li’s desperate and ragged cane fighting, and Ms. Yang’s grace with a sword, spinning and twirling amongst the reeds, will take your breath away. With a rapid editing style that mixes showcasing technique and body with experimenting with metaphor and montage, the story’s all on the battlefield.

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Han Ying-Chieh as Chief Commander Hsu Hsien-Chen in A TOUCH OF ZEN. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

But that’s all for naught if the audience can’t see anything. The current American trend in cinematography is a low-light realism, a nod to naturalism in the hands of the best, and a gray, muddy mess in the hands of the rest. The light we see at night is a faint ambiance from the moon and the streetlight three blocks away in equal part, our irises able to pick up detail in the pitch of the night better than a camera ever can. In the modern style, this becomes a lift in the black levels, a generally flat ambient look. In the Reagan era, this light could be rendered with a blue arc light and some fog. In the golden age of noir, twinkling lights against a black sky motivated the harsh artificial light that shaded the eyes of our favorite Private Eyes. It’s from this shady miasma that King Hu and his cinematographer Hua Hui-Ying seem to have pulled their film from, like a sculptor pulling a figure from the clay.

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Tien Peng as Ouyang Nin in A TOUCH OF ZEN. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Evoking a dirty, black night akin to the illustrated works of Mitchell Hook’s dime store detective novels, the heroes of A Touch of Zen are trapped in the spider’s web, and you feel it in every nighttime battle. Costume Designer Lee Jia-chi replicates the clothes of the Ming Dynasty in perfect synergy with the camera team with flashes of blue against red and steel shooting out from the darkness as Ouyang Nin (Tien Peng) and General Shi (Pai Ying) dual in the hallways of an abandoned mansion. Lunging through the frame, the performers are drawn in whispers of light, a shoulder fold here, the rim of a hat there, the flash of a blade illuminating their face just as much as any moonlight streaming through the window.

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Hsu Feng as Yang Hui-ching in A TOUCH OF ZEN. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

It’s not all darkness, however, as this grand epic takes you back and forth between the dark web of court intrigue and assassinations to the sunlit mountains where Zen master Abbot Hui Yuah (Roy Chiao) teaches those who wander through the way of Buddha, and even to a bamboo forest for one of the most iconic fights in wuxia film, an oft-cited influence on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000). With grand vistas that highlight nature and man’s small part in it, and lily pads in the abandoned mansion as metaphor for companionship, the camera revels in the world around us, greater than any conflict.

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Han Ying-Chien in yellow, Ching-Ying Lam on the left in red, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung on the right in red, with an army of extras in A TOUCH OF ZEN. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

This is a film that, in scope and design, is built for the silver screen. Rare is the LCD TV that will have enough small lighting zones to accommodate the choreography sketched in light as Hsia Feng’s Ms. Yang fights in the night, and rarer still is the living room that can hold the scale of Gu’s tale of discovery and Yang’s fight to feel a touch of the zen denied her by the East Depot. If you can catch it in a theater, it’s an absolute must.

Screening Sunday, April 30th, 1pm at the Metrograph Theater in NYC at 7 Ludlow Street.

For information on this screening and the other nine films, head to the official 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Swordfighting Heroes Edition webpage.


Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews

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