Sunday, 24 January 2016

a touch of zen

a touch of zen is quite possible one of the greatest, most ambitious and most thought-provoking films ever made, and more people should be saying that. this is a film that seems like it could easily hold the answers to all humanity's questions somewhere in its 180-minute running time. and it has cool fights.

the film follows ku chen chai (chun shih), a mild-mannered, unambitious artist who lives with his mother in a derelict building next to the ruins of a fortress. when ku discovers a young woman, yang hui-ching (feng hsu), living in the ruins of the fortress he soon finds himself embroiled in a political conspiracy and decides to help her escape the corrupt government officials who want her killed.

i feel like i should rewatch a touch of zen at least ten times before i can properly talk about it, but i'll try my best. first of all, i have to talk about yang. yang is the best female character in any film ever. everyone is talking about how cool rey is in star wars and how great it is to have a female lead who does all the stuff and that's all good and true, but yang is rey multiplied by a million. she's awesome at fighting but she's also definitely a woman, by which i mean the filmmakers didn't just switch the gender of a part written for a man like they usually do. mostly i just loved that she's supercool and not phased by anything, even when there's an army coming after her. she's the kind of female lead cinema needs, and clearly once had.

ku is also an interesting character. he starts off as this bumbling, incompetent scholar, but through yang he gains confidence and becomes her greatest ally. what's great about ku is that he's so thoroughly human and therefore flawed. this is really a film about transcendence, and yang's path to become something else; something wiser and more powerful than she was before. most films would take the bumbling hero and set him on the same path - star wars, for example, or the matrix. here, ku is never truly allowed access to yang's world, and that makes him all the more relatable and her all the more like a superhero. it's like we're being told the story of superman from the perspective of jimmy olsen (which i'm sure happed in the comics at some point). the best example of this is in the aftermath of a huge battle scene. faced with an army, ku has the idea that yang and her companions could rig the supposedly haunted fortress with traps and props to scare and disorientate the invading forces. it works, and with ku's help yang is able to take down an army. the following morning, ku wanders the battlefield, laughing with glee at the fact his crazy idea worked. but as he passes more and more dead bodies the horror and reality of what he has done dawn on him. in a moment that should be triumphant, that feeling of great victory in the face of impossible odds is snatched away from us as it is from ku. this is why this film is so good, because nothing here is black and white.

i should point out that the fight scenes themselves are incredible, particularly the scene in the bamboo forest. while there are incredible feats of gravity-defying combat on display, the film never loses focus on the narrative and it's always clear who is who and what they're fighting for. the film is said to have influenced films like crouching tiger, hidden dragon and the house of flying daggers, but to me those films didn't draw me into their world as effectively as this one does. there's just something authentic and real about it, despite the insanity of some of the bigger set-pieces. maybe it's the fact that the story starts so small before it expands, but it feels much more grounded than most martial arts epics i've seen.

a touch of zen is a film that feels like it contains layer upon layer of information and one that definitely stands up to repeat viewings. the narrative has a mythic quality to it in that everything that happens, even the smallest moment, feels like it has huge importance. i really loved this film, i think it's a true classic and if you haven't seen it you should definitely seek out this release.

a touch of zen will be released by eureka entertainment on blu-ray & dvd in a limited edition three-disc set as part of the masters of cinema series for the first time in the uk on 25 january 2016.


  1. An excellent movie. If you like 'A Touch of Zen' you should watch 'Come Drink With Me.' Another great King Hu film with Cheng Pei-pei, from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, playing the lead.

    1. thanks for the recommendation, i'll check that out!