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I just never expected anything like the experience of watching "A Touch
of Zen". I settled down to watch a quaint old film from 1960s' world
cinema. Three hours later I was exhilarated after stumbling across of
the greatest films made in the 20th century - and it wasn't a moment
The film is carefully structured, in three contrasting sections. It is only when you look back that you realize just how cleverly King Hu has created those three sections. The same characters, for the most part, appear in each section, but each focuses on a different combination. The first section focuses on the artist Ku, slowly building a picture of a quiet life in a rural backwater. The second switches tempo, with amazing martial arts action focusing on the fugitive Ku and her friends. The final section calms down again, as the mysterious Buddhist monk comes into sharp focus, and the martial arts become more and more amazing.
All this takes place in the most beautiful Chinese countryside, sometimes bathed in light (the use of sunlight and the monk is particularly impressive) and sometimes in dramatic thunderstorms, making the film even more of a delight to watch. Don't be put off by the 'kung-fu' label, this is even better than "Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger".
Hsia Nu is not only one of the most remarkable martial arts movies one
imagine, but in any sense a most remarkable film. I at least am unable to
name many other three hour long movies which I have not found slightly
lengthy (not to say boring) at some stage. Moreover Hsia Nu is the kind of
film one definitely would want to watch on the big screen of a cinema,
something rather rare as far as martial arts films are concerned and
generally rare for anything not an extremely expensive
Its panoramic nature sequences have not only esthetic value, but are also symbolically relevant. In fact if one wanted to do this, it would be possible to interpret the whole movie as an allegory of human existence. Fortunately there is really no need to get out the heavy guns of symbolism and artistic value to convince oneself that Hsia Nu is a great movie. It is gripping and entertaining, amusing and serious, and infused with a pathos hardly ever encountered in European (or American) movies. Pathos of course is something difficult to handle, but the director and cast of Hsia Nu manage it very well. The film has its deliberate light moments, but it never invites laughter at its moments of pathos.
Of course we are talking here about a martial arts movie. And indeed, the fighting sequences are brilliantly done - there definitely has been no progress since 1969 - but there is not only that. There is in fact not all that much fighting if one considers that this is a three hour film, and the fights do not carry the plot. In some sense Hsia Nu resembles more a Japanese samurai drama than what we more customarily associate with the Hong Kong and Taiwan martial arts genre.
The plot is very long and complex - though perfectly understandable, and even logical - therefore I do not see any real interest in retelling it here. Suffice to say that it contains most principal human emotions: loyalty and treason, love and revenge, hunger for happiness and for...enlightenment. The acting is brilliant, and especially a more masterly 'great master' character, a monk in Hsia Nu, would indeed be difficult to find in any martial arts movie.
If anybody is not convinced by the merit of the martial arts genre and just wants to give it a sole and unique chance, then this is the movie that might convinced such a snob that cinematographic 'art' is not necessarily grey, quiet and slow, but can be colourful, vibrant and full of pathos.
A Touch of Zen (1969) has to be one of the best films ever made. I am
one of those people who can never truly name a personnel favorite film.
I feel that there isn't a film that you can say is the best ever. I
still do but if I had to say five or ten, A Touch of Zen would have to
be in the top five. I haven't felt this way about a movie since I saw
The Seventh Seal. I love this movie. Everything from the beautiful
photography down to the deepness of the picture. The acting is superb,
the writing is top notch and the direction is flawless. The film has
everything you could want in a movie; action, drama, and comedy. The
soundtrack is haunting and the wire work is amazing. No wonder why so
many movies have copied off of this film (notably Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon and The Matrix Trilogy). Unlike those other films this
movie will withstand the test of time
This movie is awesome. A magical experience caught on celluloid. A true treasure.
To think that I used to accuse King Hu of doing injustice to the wuxia
genre with boring storytelling and slow action, I must have been on
crack at the time--as his best works completely transcend elements of
conventional film-making. In A TOUCH OF ZEN, It's not the story or the
action that stands out; although they are part of the system, they are
secondary to the theme of spiritual enlightenment, which is what counts
in Buddhist philosophy. When the abbot confronts the East Chamber
agent, the art of combat is strictly utilized by the abbot to guide the
agent to "put down his sword, and attain peace with Buddha." There is a
haunting sight when the bookworm scholar is amused by his tactic which
fooled the agents. He thinks he has reached the peak of perfection, but
then he sees dead bodies lying around who have suffered from his
tactic, and the only thing on his mind is a woman whom he lusts. As
book-smart as he is, he still suffers from worldly affair like everyone
else. Only at the end when he accepts Buddha is he able to live in
Aside from the philosophical points, ZEN also scores strongly in establishing mood, suspense, and fascinating visuals. The Jiang Hu in this film feels incredibly authentic, and the rich mise-en-scene is refreshing compared to the limited Shaw Bros studio offerings. I loved the photography throughout; it beautifully captures the spiritual wonder of ancient Orient. In framing still shots, King Hu chiefly employs medium and medium close-ups, mounting his camera at an upward angle so we can always see beyond the characters, perhaps to suggest existence of higher wisdom.
One observation I would like to propose is that although ZEN is probably a milestone in Chinese cinema, it would be a minor masterpiece compared to the best works from 60s Japan. The lush photography and haunting images from KWAIDAN come to mind as a comparison. No doubt, King Hu also learned a few tricks from the likes of Kurosawa, such as pointing his camera at the sun which occurs frequently in ZEN.
I first saw 'A Touch of Zen' in the late 70s; it had such an effect on me
that I looked for it on video for years and years, but to no avail - then
my relief it was shown on TV during a martial arts night twenty years
In fact it was shown as the finale of that night - so perhaps I am not
only person who thinks this is the ultimate martial arts
It is over three hours long; the first hour is mainly scene-setting and not much happens, but this just adds to the impact. All you could want in a film is here - tension, action, arty filmwork, a kind of love interest, action, beautifully choreographed fights, intrigue, action, comedy, philosophy.... and a monk who is so pure that when he is wounded he bleeds.... well, you'd better see for yourself what he bleeds.
A must-see (if you have three hours to spare).
For UK DVD viewers, this genre classic is finally available to own. Optimum's print is not perfect (slightly dim in places), and you can't turn off the giant subtitles (should you want to), but at least we can see the full version of King Hu's masterpiece. Anybody seriously interested in martial arts cinema must seek out a copy, since it represents one of the most elegant examples of its type, a few years before the international success of Asian fight flicks proliferated a slew of poorly dubbed, re-edited versions for Western markets, solidifying the stereotype of "chop-socky" films as plot-free, laughable foreign commodities. A Touch of Zen builds up for almost a full hour before so much as a punch is thrown. The story is narrow, but complex, and King Hu takes time to create atmosphere, and a sense of place and time which is often taken for granted in other period epics. Oh yes, and the fight scenes are great.
Touch of Zen is one of those movies that are on a class and genre of
their own and probably never in the movie history will find their
match. King Hu certainly lived up to his name, when crafting this piece
of art that deserves even more respect and admiration than it has
Blending different genres seamlessly together and paving the way for many movies to come, everything here is well balanced and thought over. The story that begins as a ghost story starts slowly but rewardingly layering up, developing and getting more dimensions, moving into Wu Xia styled action and politics drama, then leaping into the territory of Seven samurais -style tactical warfare depiction, finally getting some deeply mystical aspects in the end. Settings and photography are stunningly beautiful, and all the visuals are breath-taking timeless.
Looks like time simply cannot touch this movie, and that's why I compare this one to the works of Sergio Leone. Definitely one of the best movies I have ever seen. Now, if only my wish come true and we had some day better than watchable DVD release of this true classic, preferably fully restored from original film. One can only hope...
This is my truth. What is yours?
I came upon this film by accident, I looked for it on video, someone
me a second generation copy for US$80! No thanks, then by magic it came up
on digital TV in the UK, 3 months after I had started to look for
I saw the widescreen/subtitled 177 mins version, although it is 3 hours long it is not boring, it keeps your attention throughout. The fight sequences I did not find particularly thrilling except for the monks (they were exceptional). The film is a little too dark, not enough sunshine. The photography is excellent especially given the film was made in '69. You can see the similarity with the modern day "crouching tiger hidden dragon" Ang Lee has said he was inspired by this film. If you ever get a chance to see this make sure you do.
Ok A Touch Of Zen can be describe like a Wu Xia Pian, but it is a good movie in all the direction. Not only a good wu xia pian, a good movie.
Critics of Occidental country always ignore the genre movie. It is why by exemple, we never saw "Ninkyo Eiga" from Japan, but it is the moste populare genre in the 60-70 era. When a director like Sergio Leone made too much succes, they can't ignore him. But in general, they try to put their own idea of the each country's cinematography on the dictionnary. Japan are a zen country who made slow movie like Ozu (althought Ozu try to made movie like American with Japanese things).
This is why the history of cinema are full of injustice. King Hu are one the great injustice. Yes, he made wu xia pian, a martial art genre movies. Swordplay movie in fact.
But is movies are a perfect mechanic, an exemple of editing. Hu made is own editing and like the piano play by Glenn Gould, we recognise his style when you pay attention of editing.
Hu dont want to use "wire" or special effect. He want use "editing" and camera to suggest anythings.
A Touch Of Zen are a gem. But i understand, it is maybe too much asian for the american country. All the first alf of the movie are talk and slow pacing. But the others alf are action, action and action. I dont know who want to watch that. Intellectual who love serious movies will love the first alf but maybe they just think acyion are too stupide. Same thing for the teenager who love action pack.
But, if you forget all your expectation, you will be touch byééé magic of poetry. Hu made a 3 distinctive parts movie. The first focus on individuality, the second on politics and the third on religion.
The first hour focuys on a naive scholar who discover strange yhing happen in the village where he live whit his old mothers. Suspens and mystery are the substance of this part.
The second show politics manipulation and the substance of war. This is the Hu tradionnal part. We are in Dragon Inn Gate, Fate Of Lee Khan or all the politics corruption things. A lot of martial arts.
The third part introduce us in the things of spirit. Hu show us a personn face to himself, the society and the spiritual....
But dont epect the spiritual journey like American movies. It his a King Hu movie. Ellipse and short cut are always where you dont expect and the focus always where you never goes....
A great movie.
"A touch of Zen", the English title is perhaps the only thing about
this film that isn't beautifully and subtly conceived... This is a film
about about ambition, perception, personality and what evil might be...
it isn't really a standard action movie.
The storyline is highly compelling, but not rushed; the pacing is wonderfully handled, moving from the slow, almost lazy quotidian existence of the unambitious, scholarly protagonist to the fast paced, highly dynamic camera work of the action scenes. The shape of the film, perhaps the most amazing aspect of this 'masterpiece', starts with the small (even petty) and slowly ramps through the heroic to the iconic and finally to the divine. Each stage is a brief, often profound meditation on the nature of life and humanity of that state.
The cinematography is always lavish and startling, and, as with many of the Japanese films of the time, not afraid of a screen beautifully composed mostly of shades of darkness.
The martial arts displayed are never exhibitionary nor obviously proficient. This understated quality to the skills is sometimes disappointing (if that is why you are watching the film), but ends up being the best way to capture the the unknowable skills of some of the characters. As a matter of interest, a young Sammo Hung makes an appearance as a bodyguard and there are some other kung fu faces amongst the stunt men.
All in all, this film is profound and compelling. Well worth a watch
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