A dreamy artist/scholar just wants to paint and study. His nagging mother wants him to take the civil service exam, marry, and settle down. The two of them live unhappily together in the ruins of an abandoned fortress because the rent is cheap. Then one day two mysterious strangers arrive: a beautiful woman and a man with sinister eyes...
Thus begins A Touch of Zen (1971-72), King Hu's classic three-hour wuxia epic. You can see it in all its glory in a beautiful new 4K restoration at Film Forum, from April 22nd through May 5th.
A big influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001), A Touch of Zen is the ultimate expression of martial arts movie director King Hu (Come Drink with Me, Dragon Inn). Hu had become concerned about the amount of mindless violence in most action movies--including his own. He wanted to make a film that reflected Buddhist concepts of compassion and pacifism.
Don't worry, there's still plenty of kickass ass kicking in A Touch of Zen. The battles in the bamboo forest and the abandoned fortress are justifiably famous and have often been copied. Fans of martial arts mayhem will not be disappointed.
But at a crucial juncture, the hero--the dreamy artist/scholar, who turns out to also be a military genius--fades into the background, and the Buddhists monks that have been on the periphery take center stage. The monks kick ass too when absolutely forced to, but they also preach about repentance and the sanctity of life.
A Touch of Zen is also deliberately slower paced than most chopsocky flicks. The first fight scene doesn't occur until an hour into the film. Hu uses that slower pace to build atmosphere and tension, deploying scenes of nature--spider webs, frozen and running water, radiant sunlight and romantic moonlight, bending ferns and immovable rocks--to convey his themes.
A Touch of Zen had a difficult release history. Against Hu's wishes, it was cut into two ninety-minute movies. Then a single, heavily edited (re: butchered) two-hour version was released. Finally, Hu regained control of the film, and released a single three-hour version, as he always intended.
Although the three-hour version won a prize at Cannes, it was a box office disappointment, and Hu was never able to work on this scale again. We are lucky the full version of A Touch of Zen exists. See it at Film Forum while you can, and fulfill your cycle of existence.
Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street in Manhattan.