A Touch of Zen (1971) 4.64/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 93.8
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 200 mins
Director: King Hu
Stars: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai

There are really few films that have the capacity to take your breath away and this is certainly one of them. A Touch of Zen was released in 1971 and was the first of its kind so if it still manages to knock you for six today, imagine what it did to audiences who had never seen anything of its kind before. Furthermore, imagine how inspired its creators must have been to conceptualise it when there were no archetypes to begin with. All these considerations are pertinent when it comes to properly judging the scale of this film’s brilliance.

A Touch of Zen tells a sweeping story that walks a fine line between the natural and supernatural and opens with one of the most quietly stunning and contemplative moments you’re likely to witness on screen. We begin by following Ku, a modest artist who lives with his mother in an old abandoned fort that is reputed to be haunted. When he discovers a beautiful young woman has moved in to the house across from him, he gets embroiled in a conflict between her and the imperial soldiers who for reasons which eventually become clear are pursuing her.

Having proceeded on a very subdued note until this point, the film then explodes into a martial arts epic with choreography and action on a scale that the later famed Hong Kong studios (Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers) would take a decade to match. A Touch of Zen gives us our first taste of “wire-fighting” but director King Hu was far too clever to saturate us with it. Instead, we see our heroes and villains gliding through trees and over rooftops very seldom and always in a fashion that adds to the story’s mystique.

Though this film could have succeeded wonderfully solely as a martial arts film, around half way through it signals that it is in fact going to be much more and in a final sequence as spellbinding as anything any genre has ever offered up, it confirms that promise and simply blows your mind. This, quite simply, is cinema.

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