A Touch of Zen [Xia nü] ,
newly restored in 4K by Janus Films.
Ticket Information: $9.50 general admission at the door
courtesy of Janus Films:
In director King Hu’s grandest work, the noblewoman Yang (Hsu Feng), a fugitive hiding in a small village, must escape into the wilderness with a shy scholar and two aides. There, the quartet face a massive group of fighters, and are joined by a band of Buddhist monks who are surprisingly skilled in the art of battle. Janus Films is proud to present the original, uncut version of this classic in a sparkling new 4K restoration.
• Production of A Touch of Zen began in 1967 but was not completed until 1969. Against director King Hu’s wishes, producers demanded that the film be exhibited in two parts (in 1970 and 1971) in Taiwan, where it languished at the box office. The famous bamboo-forest fight climax of the first part was reprised at the beginning of the second. Without Hu, the producers then recut the film into a two-hour version and rereleased it to theaters, where it performed no better. In 1973, Hu regained control of the film and recut it according to his original intentions: as a single three-hour film. That version premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975.
• Hu stated that the Ming Dynasty was a period “when Western influences first reached China,” and that he conceived his films as critiques of the unjustified killings depicted in such Western movies as the James Bond franchise, where the hero indiscriminately guns down faceless enemies.
• A Touch of Zen was the first Chinese film to win an award at Cannes, where it took home the Technical Grand Prize in 1975.
• Unusual for the wuxia genre, the first fight sequence does not occur until almost an hour into the film.
• A Touch of Zen was inspired by “The Magnanimous Girl,” from Pu Songling’s ghost-story anthology Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. The anthology consists of roughly 500 stories and has inspired many films, including Li Han-hsiang’s The Enchanting Shadow, Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story, and Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin.
• Hu had a full village constructed for the opening half of the film, and then left it alone for nine months to give it a weathered look.
King Hu’s A Touch of Zen was restored in 4K by the Taiwan Film Institute and L’Immagine Ritrovata from the 35 mm original camera negative. The negative was generally in good preservation condition, with very light shrinkage. The most serious problems were several tears that needed to be repaired. The film was not particularly warped or unstable, but it was covered in stains and colored spots of various sizes, and full of splices, so the lab used a dust removal filter and went frame by frame to eliminate unwanted artifacts. The removal of splice marks was a heavy task: a movie with fast editing, A Touch of Zen is full of close splices. This work was done by manually reconstructing the damaged parts of frames with interpolation tools, adjusting for luminance and grain. During the color-correction process, the 4K resolution allowed the lab to achieve a deep definition and richness. As there was no vintage positive element available to use as a reference for color restoration, a 1992 print preserved at the Taiwan Film Institute was consulted. Research results on Dragon Inn provided by the TFI and the lab’s previous restoration experience on that film also helped the lab execute the color correction of A Touch of Zen, which was shot by the same director and film crew.
Touch of Freedom
After a long stint at Hong Kong’s historic Shaw Brothers studio, which specialized in martial arts pictures, King Hu had decided to strike out on his own. His 1966 Shaw production Come Drink with Me had been an enormous commercial and artistic triumph for him but had proved too radical—in the realistic violence of its carefully orchestrated action—for the studio. So he had left Hong Kong for Taiwan, where he made his first major independent success, 1967’s Dragon Inn, with producer Sha Rongfeng, for their short-lived studio the Union Film Company.
Hu’s next film would prove even more ambitious. A Touch of Zen (1971) is the kind of gargantuan production that only an artist high on newfound freedoms would dream of making. A three-hour production with a richly woven plot, structural complexity, and dazzling visual experimentation, A Touch of Zen is the director’s grandest vision.
Starting as a story about a fugitive noblewoman (played by Hsu Feng, in one of the strong female roles typical of the director) hiding out in a village after she and her family were marked for extermination by the corrupt Ming dynasty government, the film builds into a spiritual action epic about the uneasy coexistence of violence and Buddhist principles. With its mystical beauty, exquisite photography, and moving, ambiguous depiction of faith, A Touch of Zen is a work of metaphysical genius, Hu’s clearest statement of faith and ultimate visual expression of the seemingly unfilmable concepts of Zen Buddhism. It is especially renowned for its radically disjunctive editing and dexterous camera movements during fight scenes. Here more than ever, one can feel the influence of the Chinese opera on Hu’s action cinema. It wholly reflects his ideas about the relationship between film and viewer; as he once said, “The audience is the camera. I don’t want the audience to sit and watch, I want it to move.”
With its three-hour-plus running time, A Touch of Zen offers many characters and plot strands, and it was, in fact, originally released in two parts. The first half, which climaxes with the most famous action sequence of Hu’s career—a gravity-defying, startlingly edited battle set in a bamboo forest—was released in 1970, while the second half was released in 1971. The two parts were subsequently combined into one title for international audiences, as Hu originally intended, and it has mostly been presented this way ever since.
A Touch of Zen was the first wuxia film to make a mark on the Western art-cinema world, screening to acclaim at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and winning the Technical Grand Prize (awarded for “superior technique”) there. Just as Pather Panchali had brought Indian cinema to an international audience at Cannes twenty years earlier, A Touch of Zen was the breakthrough for a particular strand of Eastern cinema, convincing an audience that had previously been skeptical, or at least disinterested, of the artistic value and singular beauty of the best martial arts moviemaking.
Despite the film’s success at Cannes, however, it was an expensive disappointment domestically, which made it difficult for Hu to raise money for future projects—certainly for anything on such a scale. After 1975, Hu would focus on Buddhist- or supernatural-themed dramas. Though he continued to work in Taiwan, the movies being made by the ascendant daring filmmakers of the Taiwanese New Wave marked his work as dated. Nevertheless, Hu, who died in 1997 after complications following heart surgery, remains among the most influential filmmakers of all time, inspiring directors from Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou to Tsui Hark and Tsai Ming-liang.
Although in the West most often applied to film, the term wuxia—literally “martial [wu] hero [xia]”—in fact refers to a genre of Chinese fiction that is represented in every medium, from literature to opera to, of course, movies. Dating back to 300 BCE in its protean form, the wuxia narrative traditionally follows a hero from the lower class without official affiliation who pursues righteousness and/or revenge while adhering to a code of chivalrous behavior. Brought to mass popularity in the early part of the twentieth century via a series of post-Confucian novels, wuxia soon spread to film with the appearance of Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, a now lost serial adapted from the novel The Tale of the Extraordinary Swordsman that was released between 1928 and 1931. Banned by the government in the thirties due to their subversive and supernatural elements, wuxia films returned to the screen in the fifties, taking the traditional narrative form while also borrowing elements—such as careful choreography—from Chinese opera. Following a strict formula, wuxia films—though always period pieces—can be said to have become fully modern in the 1960s, with the formation of the Shaw Brothers studio and the advanced direction of filmmakers such as King Hu. The commercial success of Hu’s Come Drink with Me (produced for Shaw) and Dragon Inn (produced independently) kicked off a wave of wuxia titles, which were frequently exported to the U.S. as reedited, dubbed action films during the martial arts craze of the first half of the seventies. Though the genre wavered in popularity in the succeeding decades, it returned to international prominence in 2000 with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is heavily indebted to Hu’s classics of the sixties and seventies.
“The audience is the camera. I don’t want the audience to sit and watch, I want it to move.”
courtesy of Janus Films:
Born in Beijing in 1932, King Hu moved to Hong Kong at the age of eighteen and started work as an illustrator for film advertisements. In 1954, he made his acting debut in the film Humiliation for Sale, and in 1958, through director Li Han-hsiang, he joined the Shaw Brothers studio as an actor, screenwriter, and assistant director. In 1963, Hu was first assistant director for Li on the film The Love Eterne, and the following year he made his directorial debut with The Story of Sue San. In 1966, Hu released his first wuxia film, Come Drink with Me, which was a major factor in the rise of the genre.
Dragon Inn (1967) was a blockbuster, setting box-office records in Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, and proved to have a broad and lasting influence. Its follow-up would not hit screens until 1971, after three years of filming. A Touch of Zen took the Technical Grand Prize award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, propelling Hu onto the world stage, and its bamboo forest duel became a classic scene and an indelible contribution to cinema.
Hu’s 1981 film The Juvenizer—entirely self-funded and self-shot—was his first comedy, and his only work set in the present. After The Wheel of Life (1983), Hu stepped out of the limelight until 1990’s The Swordsman, for which he made a comeback at the request of the younger wuxia director Tsui Hark. Hu was involved in the costuming, styling, and set design for the film, including setting up a massive set in Xitou, Taiwan. In 1992, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild. The following year saw the release of what turned out to be his final film, Painted Skin. In 1997, while about to begin work on a film about the Chinese immigrant workers who built the transcontinental railroads of America, Hu died while undergoing heart surgery.
1964 《玉堂春》 The Story of Sue San
1965 《大地兒女》 Sons of the Good Earth
1966 《大醉俠》 Come Drink with Me
1967 《龍門客棧》 Dragon Inn
(part of the omnibus film Four Moods)
1971 《俠女》 A Touch of Zen
1973 《迎春閣之風波》 The Fate of Lee Khan
1975 《忠烈圖》 The Valiant Ones
1979 《空山靈雨》 Raining in the Mountain
1979 《山中傳奇》 Legend of the Mountain
1981 《終身大事》 The Juvenizer
1983 《天下第一》 All the King’s Men
1983 《大輪迴》 The Wheel of Life
1990 《笑傲江湖》 The Swordsman
1993 《畫皮之陰陽法王》 Painted Skin
LinksHere is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:
7/15/16 – Based in a centuries-old genre of Chinese literature, the wuxia martial arts movie takes place in a world of swords, sorcery, chivalry and romance. Here are 10 of its jaw-dropping milestones. – link
7/22/16 – Over on the Criterion Collection’s Current, read King Hu’s 1975 Cannes press notes for A Touch of Zen – link
7/23/16 – “The Asian martial arts film is central to the history of cinema as an art. Not long ago, that statement would have been regarded as reckless. Now video games showcase martial arts, and fantasy adventure films boast dragons and flying swordsmen. More deeply, the tradition running from 1920s Japanese and Chinese swordplay films and continuing through the postwar work of Akira Kurosawa and Hong Kong directors has explored powerful approaches to film aesthetics—the way movies are staged and cut, the way sound enhances bursts of movement. In this collective exploration, no filmmaker has been more distinctive and exhilarating than King Hu.” David Bordwell – link
7/30/16 – “All Hail King Hu” by Straw Cats Theater
8/3/16 – Based in a centuries-old genre of Chinese literature, the wuxia martial arts movie takes place in a world of swords, sorcery, chivalry and romance. Here are 10 of its jaw-dropping milestones – link
8/11/16 – A Touch of Zen finds the art in the martial arts at Pop Matters – link