"Visionary" barely begins to describe this masterpiece of Chinese cinema and martial arts moviemaking. A Touch of Zen by King Hu depicts the journey of Yang (Hsu Feng), a fugitive noblewoman who seeks refuge in a remote, and allegedly haunted, village. The sanctuary she finds with a shy scholar and two aides in disguise is shattered when a nefarious swordsman uncovers her identity, pitting the four against legions of blade-wielding opponents. At once a wuxia film, the tale of a spiritual quest, and a study in human nature, A Touch of Zen is an unparalleled work in Hu’s formidable career and an epic of the highest order, characterized by breathtaking action choreography, stunning widescreen landscapes, and innovative editing.
Directed by King Hu, ‘A Touch of Zen’ is a highly regarded classic of Chinese cinema and deserving of the "elite" Criterion Collection treatment. The movie takes place during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century, and involves mysterious characters, mysticism, politics and of course, violence. The plot is pretty straightforward, but the storytelling is done at a leisurely pace, building up to action scenes which are executed sparingly but stunningly.
Following the opening credits, 'A Touch of Zen' offer viewers some disquieting images of a village and its surroundings, before introducing the main character Gu Sheng-shai (played with an earnest innocence by Shih Chun). He is a lighthearted, modest man who enjoys an existence of drawing and art while generally avoiding any matters controversial. Living a quiet life in his village with his mother, Gu meets up with Yang Hui-ching (Hsu Feng), who resides next door and is a fugitive at large. Naturally, he falls in love with the lovely young woman and quickly becomes involved in her affairs. She initially appears to be comely and delicate, but soon proves herself to be deadly with a blade, and in trouble with the law due to her father's attempt to disclose corruption by other government officials. Wei gathers assassins to hunt her down in a single attack, and she in turn recruits her own team, including a military man General Shih (Pai Ying) and General Lu (Sit Hon). Rounding out her crew is a group of specially skilled monks led by Abbot Hui Yuan as played by Roy Chiao, perhaps best known to American audiences as Lao Che in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The plot of the movie focuses on her initial evasion but inevitable confrontation with her hired assassins, and leads to a climax filled with action, but ending on an ambiguous note involving religion and spirituality.
Originally, the movie was distributed as two films, released a year apart in the early 1970's, which is similar to how the ‘Back to the Future’ sequels were released, and how the first two ‘Superman’ movies were intended to be presented. However, the three-hour cut here flows as one cohesive work and it’s hard for me to imagine just how a clear division could have been made. The first half of the film focuses on establishing characters and their conflicts with brief battle scenes set among the village. However, the second half builds up to the climactic confrontation, which takes place amidst the midst-filled woods before moving onto sun-drenched dusty hills. While Gu Sheng-shai is established as the main character, he is at first the most passive of all the combatants, and Yang remains the heroine, never succumbing to being just another "woman in distress," There is a shift in focus on the supporting characters as the story progresses, but none of the action set-pieces interferes with their dynamics.
The opening shots of spiders spinning webs dripping with dew convey an ominous tension which is immediately offset by epic images of landscape and architecture, including panoramic shots of clouds and mountains, as well as waving blades of grass. Indeed, ‘A Touch of Zen’ is filled with many symbolic images and religious allusions which linger in between all the dialogue and drama. Again, silent, lingering visuals convey much of the quiet emotion, but the drama is also heightened by roaming camera work, especially at the end where images become hallucinatory and nearly super-natural. A forceful, and dramatic music score written by Tai Kong Mg and Ta Chiang Wu accompanies much of the movie, and exaggerates the visuals effectively.
With an epic length of nearly three hours, it may take more than one viewing to appreciate the director's style and production. The stately pacing reminds me of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ which was released in 1984, and also builds its epic feeling from a prolonged narrative. (I hated Leone's movie when I first saw it, but later grew to appreciate it when I became less insistent on seeing blood and guts in my gangster films.) Even though I am by far not an expert in martial arts cinema (the closest I come is the ‘Kill Bill’ series, the ‘Rush Hour’ films, ‘Kentucky Fried Movie’ and more than my fair share of anonymous chop-socky flicks on independent TV stations from the eighties and nineties), I immediately appreciated how this work is considered to be a milestone in the genre and an overall work of art.
THE BLU-RAY: VITAL DISC STATS
This three hour movie is presented on a single platter BD50, which also contains over two hours of supplementary materials. It is difficult to tell whether the less than ideal picture quality is due purely to the original source, or in part related to this digitally cramped medium (see below). The disc is housed in a clear Blu-ray case, along with a folded page on slick paper measuring 18-1/2" x 12-3/4" which acts as both liner notes and a movie poster.
The Blu-ray picture is AVC/MPEG-4 encoded at 1080p resolution. While the digital transfer appears to be done expertly, the original source isn't picture perfect nor is it consistent. I must give the benefit of the doubt to Criterion Collection (whose reputation for production and presentation is generally unimpeached) for delivering the best of what they could with 'A Touch of Zen." Indeed, a write-up titled "About the Transfer" which appears in the Blu-ray's insert makes note of the process involved in cleaning up the source, which is a 1992 print preserved by the Taiwan Film Institute. However, viewers who are used to pristine images of restored classics may be getting a few more "warts and all" then they are used to.
There is a standard amount of grain which is to be expected in a film which is over forty years old, which varies from scene to scene but does not distract. Black levels suffer on occasion, partiicularly in scenes which take place during night where dark blue clothing and shadowy backgrounds are crushed in one big mass. Colors are well-produced and consistent. The iridescent picture is always engaging, even during the film's grittiest moments. Dark reds make a regular appearance following acts of bloody violence, but the golds and browns are presented distinctly on clothing and on wooden objects.
There is an inconsistency to the clarity of the picture, which does appear to be directly related to print damage. Grey splotches of dirt or other artifacts occasionally appear onscreen during several moments with natural sunlight, showing up like grime on a lens. While less noticeable in shots busy with people or objects, these anomalies stick out considerably against a blue sky looking like giant eye floaters, and can be startling in an otherwise beautiful looking movie. (Please see accompanying screen captures for an illustration.) Again, there is no doubt that Criterion probably has done the best they could with what they had, even though a two-disc set may have improved digital image quality.
Noted for its "uncompressed monaural soundtrack," the Blu-ray's sound quality for 'A Touch of Zen' is very good considering the film's age and probable condition prior to restoration. However, I must confess that only those who understand fluent Mandarin will be able to tell if there are discrepancies or intelligibility issues when it comes to the dialogue. Voices are reproduced well, within the limits of a modest dynamic range where the mid-range is most active. Sound effects which include the clanging of blades will occasionally sound strident, but there is no noticeable distortion even at greater volumes. The music score is likewise hard-sounding but has a clarity which is well-blended within the overall soundtrack.
Within the Blu-ray case is an insert which unfolds as a poster on on side, and written essays on the other. The poster is illustrated in yellows, golds and greens with the Yang Hui-Zen character looming largely. The opposite side contains an essay by David Bordwell entitled "Prowling, Scheming, Flying: A Touch of Zen as well as excerpts from a 1974 press kit by director King Hu called "Notes on 'A Touch of Zen" In between the articles are cast and credits notes, as well as acknowledgements.
The Blu-ray disc offers several supplements transferred to high definition and presented in two-channel audio and are noted as follows:
King Hu: 1992-1937 (HD 47:59) This documentary about director King Hu was produced in 2012 and features interviews and narration illustrated by photos, archival footage, and film excerpts. Film historians, fellow directors and other movie makers are featured offering their impressions and biographies on the esteemed director.
Interview with Hsu Feng (HD 17:27) and Interview with Shih Chun (HD 13:47) These segments are narrated by lead actor and actress, and spotlights a great deal of footage and stills. They speak mainly in Mandarin although the supporting visuals have English captions and explanations.
Interview with Ang Lee (HD 13:35) Best known for his many acclaimed American-produced films, Director Ang Lee offers a thoughtful analysis into Chinese filmmaking back in the seventies, specifically focusing on King Hu. His comments about Hu's work are appreciative without being superficial and over-praising.
Interview with film scholar Tony Rayns (HD 34:05) British screenwriter and cinema expert Tony Rayns offer an insightful examination into 'A Touch of Zen' with details on the behind-the-scenes production and on the merits of the film itself. While acknowledging the limitations of the genre, he praises the movie for being the "first art-house, martial arts film."
Trailer (HD 1:41) This sub-titled preview is based on the re-release of the film and primarily excerpts actions scenes with critical quotes ("The visual style will set your eyes on fire!") and notations ("New 4k restoration coming soon to theaters").
In cinematic terms, ‘wuxia’ basically refers to the exaggerated mastery of Chinese martial arts, and 'A Touch of Zen' has been recognized for elevating the artistic standards of that genre. The movie is also known for its influence on renowned, present-day directors like Ang Lee (‘Brokeback Mountain’) and Zhang Yimou (‘Hero’) as well as on wuxia in general. Those expecting ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’-type action should keep their expectations in check, since the movie isn’t all about stunts and acrobatics, especially when it has a solid story to tell about characters conflicted by emotion, honor, and duty.
While I have some nit-picky qualms relating to the physical quality of the original source, the digital transfer and re-introduction of this film to present-day audiences nearly fifty years after its production make one forget about such technicalities. The Criterion Collection has established high standards in preserving the best in cinema, and 'A Touch of Zen' is yet another example of their excellence. This Blu-ray comes with the highest of recommendations.