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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).
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.
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?
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
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I will like to justify some comments on this classic film and also WARN
those who are looking forward to watch it. If anyone expect this movie
to be full of action, I suggest they stick to Hollywoood films. If they
expect a lot of swordplay, go for the Shaw Brothers releases, there are
plenty of them.
Touch of Zen(Xia Nu) is a great piece of 3 hrs Chinese art like the Belle noiseuse,La, a 4 hrs French art, but not as long or as slow. I watched it 30 over years ago as a kid and found it boring(a box office flop then) but when I watched it on DVD recently, I really appreciate and enjoyed it. It's not like the usual Chinese sword-fighting movies, there are very few actions here, in fact, for the first half(Part 1) there is only 1 short action scene(I don't consider this a spoiler)at the climatic end, which I consider a classic. Here is where the recent "bamboo action scenes" from other movies got the idea. Bear in mind, there is no digital effect at that time. I think Cannes gave it a technical award due to that scene. Those who think that Crouching Tiger or Flying Daggers' bamboo scenes are better, they should take a second viewing and try to figure out how those scenes are shot.
Those who enjoyed King Hu's or sword-fighting films should also watch Come Drink With Me, Dragon Inn Gate(the original), The Valiant Ones and The Fate of Lee Khan.(Too bad the latter 3 are not available in DVD yet) and those who appreciate Chinese art must watch his Raining in The Mountain and Legend in the Mountain. King Hu only directed around 15 movies in 30 years(probably the least for an Asian director of those times) and I recommend the above mentioned 7 to foreigners as I consider them as classics. I will give them a 8 or 9 for IMDb ratings.
Once there was a time when I thought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was
the very best martial arts movie man could make. Both visually and
story-tellingwise it was a joy to watch, and the fight scenes were the
best ever with their unrealistic features. Once I saw King Hu's martial
arts masterpiece A Touch of Zen I was rather surprised since it
exceeded in almost every level. First released in 1971, this great film
hasn't lost any of its power or splendor which is a fine merit on its
In the beginning of the movie we follow the everyday life of a poor artist Ku, an unmarried man in his thirties, who is living in a rather small town with his mother. This first part of the film (for it can roughly be divided into three parts) plays much like a family drama with some small comic moments. Ku's life gets a little more interesting when he notices strange people walking around town, a mysterious man visiting his studio and befriending him, and some strange noises coming from a house that is rumoured to be haunted. All this and the love (or is it just lust?) he feels for a certain woman change his life completely.
The next two parts offer a very different experience each providing the story with politics, war tactics and a growing spiritual element of mystery through beautiful photography, great direction and awesome fight scenes. What really stands out in the martial arts part of the film is how real it feels. I know it isn't real; some leaps and moves the characters make just can't be done in real life, but the clanging of the steel, swooshing of people's clothes when they perform their moves and the sound of footsteps are so impressive that I found myself holding my breath at some scenes. This is also helped by the near perfect choreography. It's nothing like the tricky and lightning-fast movements in CTHD and I like this much better. The fighters are really observing each other's moves to know when to strike.
I really can't find any serious faults in this movie. Being over three hours long there wasn't a single wasted minute. Any yawning I did was due to the late hour when I was watching this. It is true that the film moves slowly forward but I think it's necessary for the atmosphere to develop. The director really knew what he was doing since all the important scenes have that special quality to them that can only be acquired when superb direction, believable acting and a great sense of situation come together. The use of light is especially worth mentioning since it is so well done. The fight in the forest where light shines through the leaves creating a dreamlike scenery in the background has got to be one of the most captivating things I've seen on film.
A Touch of Zen is one of my favourite movies. It is very well executed in every way imaginable, and definitely among the best martial arts movies. If you like this type of movies where great action is mixed with spiritual elements and a search for peace, you must see this beautiful movie. It won't leave you cold.
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