An artist, Ku, lives with his mother near an abandoned fort, reputed to be haunted. One night, investigating strange noises, he meets the beautiful Yang who is living there, and finds himself caught up in her struggle to survive attacks by agents of an imperial noble who murdered her family.
The Chinese wuxia (martial chivalry) genre is familiar to Western audiences largely through Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon (2000) with its characteristic code-bound warriors, their mastery with weapons and ability to scale walls or trees via great leaps. In Mainland China, the Communist Party banned the genre for romanticising feudalism and anti-authoritarianism, forcing it underground until the end of the last century. Meanwhile in nationalist Taiwan and colonialist Hong Kong, wuxia thrived where the subtext of the underdog’s fight for traditional values against oppressive rule was unsubtle.1 While wuxia’s mythic history links a literary and cultural heritage across a politically scattered Chinese diaspora, director King Hu himself provides the film’s transnational crux. A Beijing-born citizen whose career shifted from Hong Kong to Taiwan, Hu gained international recognition when A Touch of Zen became the first Chinese film to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975.
However, just to consider A Touch of Zen as a genre film is limiting. Hu’s direction, particularly of the dazzling combat sequences, is that of an innovative auteur at work. Moreover, the film’s complex gender representation and deliberately elusive narrative structure underpin the intangible philosophy summed up by the English title.
The plot of this long film is complex and the following outline cursory: Gu Shengzhai, a painter and failed scholar is disturbed by events that at first seem ghostly. Gradually, it is revealed that his attractive new neighbour, Yang Huizen, is a powerful female warrior and fugitive from the corrupt eunuch ruling class. Gu is left holding the baby that results from his union with Yang as a series of battles ensues, climaxing with a showdown between Hsu, a powerful eunuch general, and Yang’s mentor, the Buddhist monk Hui Yuan.
In an extended analysis of the film, Stephen Teo outlines the influence of Beijing opera on Hu’s direction. This highly stylised synthesis of traditional dance, song and drama is utilised in conjunction with the possibilities offered by cinema and contrasts with the mimetic styles of Occidental screen performance. Teo suggests that, ‘the idiosyncrasy of the synthesis may perhaps best be grasped as cinema-opera’ (2009: 120). Throughout, stylised stance and movement indicate a non-realist, ritualised mode of performance that integrates the performers with their surroundings. See, for example, Yang’s ceremonial seduction of Gu or the highly choreographed battle scenes where the frame is filled with carefully positioned tree branches or waving goldenrod that compliment the movement of his combatants. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar suggest that the result is neither a Chinese appropriation of Western-style cinema nor a new medium for an old genre but a distinctively ‘sinicised’ style of cinema, ‘at once culturally familiar, hybrid and locally distinct’ (2006: 48).
Additionally, instead of wuxia’s more familiar deployment of actors on wires, special effects or the typical long, sustained shots that demonstrate a martial artist’s expertise, Hu’s editing style stretches the possibilities of the medium, using a method that the formalist critic David Bordwell refers to as ‘the glimpse’. Where other wuxia directors slow down action sequences in order to show off a star’s proficiency, Hu edits in such a way that we witness only fleetingly key moments from the combat. This method has more in common with the montage style favoured by Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s than Hu’s contemporaries and prioritises dramatic impact over continuity. Bordwell notes: ‘Hu’s task was to dignify and beautify these feats without tipping them into implausibility and sheer fantasy. The solution was to stress certain qualities of these feats – their abruptness, their speed, their mystery. And he chose to do so by treating these feats as only partly visible’ (2000: 118).
A striking example comes in the epic battle between Hsu and Hui Yuan. Hu structures a shot with the back of the monk’s neck dominating the foreground. Hsu faces him, tiny within the frame. The characters pause and remain still before Hsu leaps to attack. Suddenly, a bravura jump cut shows Hsu large in the frame, nearly upon the monk, and also from this perspective, the spectator. Hui Yan knocks him back, a blow we don’t actually see. Instead, the camera dwells for some time on Hsu reeling from the impact. As a perfect example of Bordwell’s ‘glimpse’, we have been part of an anticipation-inducing build-up and given witness to the aftermath but the blow itself is only impressed upon us.
Just as with Eisenstein, this use of montage dispenses with logical continuity in favour of impact.2 Consequently, a character may display preternatural prowess in combat by appearing to attack from more than one direction at once. Overall, Bordwell proposes that ‘the opacities of setting, the play with the bounding frame, the over-informative long shots, the disorienting whippans, and the elliptical cutting create a teasing degree of indiscernibility’ (2000: 134).
‘Indiscernibility’ also aptly characterises the film’s philosophical intentions. Hu wanted to evoke the elusive nature of Zen enlightenment itself, rather than through a scripted element of the narrative and his method facilitates this. ‘Zen could not be described, only felt and intuited. Any dialogue that attempted to explain Zen would be to rationalise it. Hu decided to go ahead and ‘take a chance’, as he put it, by expressing Zen visually’ (Teo 2007: 133). Perhaps, to continue Bordwell’s metaphor, we should consider this only ‘partly visible’ or ‘glimpsed’ also, mirroring how mere mortals might experience a moment of Zen insight. The English title accurately conveys the experience as ‘a touch’.
Hence, the film’s key recurring Zen motifs – the spider and dazzling sunlight – are integrated into image, gesture, symbolism, narrative and character throughout. The leisurely montage of spider webs that opens the film gradually leads us out of the woodland into civilisation; the rest of the film essentially takes us on the reverse journey. The spider image takes on multiple possible meanings (such as the female archetype) and is linked explicitly to Yang, from scenes of her weaving to her gravity-defying suspension between roof beams when she needs to hide. In combat, she darts quickly between trees, again evoking the spider. Elsewhere, the significance of the web suggests entrapment, such as the ambush that Gu sets for Yang’s enemies or the later binding of Hsu with ropes, or even the inescapability of destiny.
Meanwhile, the blinding sun suggests enlightenment itself and is consistently associated with Hui Yuan, who frequently appears haloed with dappling beams. This dazzles his unenlightened enemies and points to the film’s transcendental conclusion where he finally becomes one with the sun, indicating his achievement of nirvana. Gu and Yang’s characters are similarly transitory. The film’s Mandarin title Xia Nü translates as ‘The Magnanimous Girl’ and is based on a seventeenth-century story by Pu Songling that portrays a bisexual male character who becomes drawn from his male lover by the girl of the title. He gives up his life of sexual pleasure to take on the more complex demands of parenthood through heterosexual union. Although any open portrayal of homosexuality is absent, the film harks back to this source material as gender subversion and ambiguity abound and character sexuality is complex. The female knight is an archetype that appears elsewhere in Hu’s wuxia films but Yang is at key moments particularly defeminised, whether constructing arrows with a makeshift foundry or dominating her relationship with Gu and abandoning their baby in order to pursue her own destiny.
In turn, Gu completes a journey from poor scholar and artist to military tactician to questing lover to single parent. He is, however, consistent in his difference to traditional masculine traits: he refuses to advance himself in society, shows intuition and never directly engages in combat. Notably, Yang begins her seduction of Gu by piquing his interest when she dresses as a young man, initiating his pursuit of her.
Transitory personality and the recurring motifs of spider and sun are brought together when Gu has his first moment of self-awareness after the battle at the ‘haunted’ fort. Through a series of gradually revealing tracking shots, we share Gu’s revelation, shifting from delight at his cunning that has led to a victory in battle against the Eunuchs’ soldiers to dawning realisation at the deadly consequences of slaughtered and dying men surrounding what had been his home. Spying the monk, he gazes at the sky. A point of view shot of the blazing sun reveals a web-like pattern that suggests both illumination and inevitable fate are revealed to our erstwhile hero.
The narrative structure equally peels back layers of perception. In the above sequence, we have glided from a ghost tale to an action/romance story to a deadly reality. Yang now mysteriously vanishes and Gu is revealed not as a victorious hero and lover, but a mass killer. The plot will advance as Gu searches for her, a journey that will result in further enlightenment and the adoption of yet another new persona: as an oddly feminised father in need of Yang’s rescue.
While the nature of the two central figures is in flux, several others reveal hidden personae. Thus, character identity, including personality, sexuality and skills are transient throughout. It is thanks to the film’s long running time that this seems to be progression, rather than inconsistency. The character resolutions Gu and Yang eventually make are connected by their child, yet, in narrative terms, they are wholly separate. Stephen Teo links the film’s shifting narrative to the overall motif of Zen as an ‘improvisation in the act of self-fashioning within the film text. The process involves ceaseless narrative invention because one is not forever fixd in a single, divinely sanctioned identity’ (2009: 131).
The film’s climax is also notable for its attempt to express the sensation of Zen, rather than offer a liminal explanation or logical narrative closure. Hui Yuan is tricked by Hsu’s feigned repentance and is stabbed. Gu and Yang witness the monk bleeding gold, signifying his imminent enlightenment as Hsu endures psychedelic insanity, torment and death. The esoteric culmination that frames the holy monk Hui Yuan with a gigantic, blinding sun suggests that he has become the Buddha himself. Meanwhile, the main protagonists who have been practically absent bar brief reaction shots for the final half an hour, look on in amazement.
A Touch of Zen is a clear influence on more recent examples of transnational Chinese cinema, where talents have been drawn from the various regions to present a unified image to the world, including Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004). Both wuxia films recall the elusive female warrior and draw inspiration from Hu’s bamboo forest sequence. However, A Touch of Zen is a wuxia film inasmuch as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) are science fiction. Recalling the plot for each is reductive. Each has a climax that is intuited, rather than explanatory. Each uses genre as a springboard for something more personal, challenging, elusive and extraordinary. At the heart of A Touch of Zen is a vivid transnationality that filters its cultural tradition through the sensibilities of its ambitious and singular director.
1. Until Zhang Yimou’s post-unification Hero (2000) brought a seemingly pro-authoritarian bent to the genre.
2. A howling continuity error near the end of the film shows Yang’s combat wound shift to various positions around her face.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Taiwan. Production Company: Union Film. Director and Screenwriter: King Hu (Hu Jinquan). Cinematographer: Hua Huiying. Director of martial arts: Han Yingjie. Cast: Shi Jun (Ku Shengzhai), Xu Feng (Yang Huizen), Roy Chiao (Abbot Hui Yuan), Han Yingjie (Hsu).]
Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006.
David Bordwell, ‘Richness Through Imperfection: King Hu and the “Glimpse”’ in Poshek Fu and David Desser (eds), The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 113–36.
Stephen Teo, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, Hong Kong University Press, 2007.
Stephen Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema, The Wuxia Tradition, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.