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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen
Tai Seng // Unrated // December 10, 2002
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted December 24, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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Unquestionably a masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema, from a master director, King Hu. Loosely based on a story from Pu Songling's "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio", Touch of Zen (1969, literally the Chinese to English translation is The Gallant Lady) is an adventure, wuxia classic that would pave the way for the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and would be the first Chinese film to win an award at the Cannes films festival, garnering a technical prize for "Superior Technique."

Scholar Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) lives with his mother next to the supposedly haunted Ching Lu Fort. Making his living painting portraits and pressured by his mother to profit from his studies and take the officials exam, the directionless scholar Ku finds himself drawn into a plot of intrigue and action when a mysterious man, Quyang Nin, comes to town and Ku discovers a girl, Miss Yang Hui-ching (Hsu Feng) living in the abandoned fort.

Quyang Nin is searching for some wanted ex-patriots, two men, one masquerading as an herbalist, the other a bind man, and one woman, Miss Yang. Ku finds out that Miss Yang and the men, two former generals, are hiding out in the town and were forced into exile when Miss Yang's father uncovered corruption by the powerful Eunuch Wei, who in turn destroyed their sect before they could present the evidence of his wrongs.

Both his romantic interest in Miss Yang and his curious desire to use his studious knowledge of strategy lead scholar Ku to aide them in fighting off the government soldiers sent to kill them. This involves elaborate traps, praying on the armies superstitions, and turning the fort into a place to lure the enemy soldiers. But, even brief victories don't spell the end of the story for Ku and Miss Yang. In the end, only a powerful Buddhist monk can aide Miss Yang, Ku, and the generals in settling the score.

Unlike his more pure entertainment, fast and loose, HK action cohorts, King Hu approached his films with a more delicate touch, often taking years preparing one film, whereas crowd pleasers like Chang Cheh would make ten films in the same amount of time. King Hu's approach to storytelling was much more detailed and painterly, like the Japanese masters. His stance on action was much like Leone, letting tension unfold, realizing that a carefully composed shot or sequence could visually tell emotions better than dialogue and would further fuel the action. Here is a three hour film that, despite having barely a word spoken in its first seven minutes and no real action until almost an hour into the movie, it never feels the slightest bit tedious because the pacing, the eye candy, the characters are so rich and involving, for most viewers, there will be little room for boredom.

King Hu's camera plays as much a part as the actors, moving through shots, often taking on the point of view of the films characters. In the first action sequence, the camera follows Miss Yang and Quyang Nin, peering through bushes, behind beams of timber, sometimes rushing to catch them in the distance, and the camera is, in effect, playing the same role as scholar Ku, who is trying to make sense of all that is going on while watching the two fight. Likewise when Miss Yang and the generals fight some guards in a mist covered bamboo forest (the first of a few misty sequences in the film), the camera at times cuts to the guards view as Miss Yang flies over head, using the bamboo stalks to propel herself over them.

The story, while essentially a simple nice adventure tale, is filled with little details, working on many levels and moods. The first half of the film plays like a comedic mystery- the comedy supplied by the relationship between Ku and his henpecking mother, the mystery from Miss Yang and the generals secret and why they are being pursued. The second half of the film is more action, setting up the banished trios trap of luring the enemy army into the fort and using its haunted reputation to aide them in the battle. The third half takes a spiritual approach (albeit a very action tinged one), thus the "Touch of Zen" US producers slapped on the film as a title. The only real false note the story hits is Ku's somewhat quick change from bewildered, happy-go-lucky innocent to Guerrilla warfare strategist.

Although it has its moments of fantasy, the action is all very naturalistic and dire. Miss Yang may fly through the air, but she is visually shaken by doing so, the exertion of fighting leaves her breathing heavy, face strained, covered in sweat (something Ang Lee openly acknowledged as inspiration with Crouching Tiger). So, while they are capable of superhuman acts, they are also prey to mortality. While Ku plans and helps set the trap that enables them to defeat an army of soldiers, as he walks through the aftermath, the courtyard full of bodies, he is briefly driven mad by the carnage. So it is not just black and white, good Vs. bad, but conflict with real human consequences.

Principle stars Shih Jun and Hsu Feng worked with Kung Hu in many of his classic films. Shih Jun was in Hu's Dragon Gate Inn, Raining in the Mountain, and Legend of the Mountain. Hsu Feng was in Hu's Dragon Gate Inn, The Valiant Ones and The Fate of Lee Khan, and starred in other HK action films like Shaolin Kung Fu Mystagogue, 18 Shaolin Disciples, and White Butterfly Killer. She stopped acting in the early 80's and went on to become a producer of such films as Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon. The film features smaller roles with notable names like Roy Chiao as the esteemed Buddhist abbot and a young Sammo Hung as a guard. Also the co-action director and co-star (as the deadly commander in the elaborate finale fight) was Han Ying Chieh, who co-starred/choreographed other classic films like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, A Man Called Tiger, and The Himalayan.

The DVD: Tai Seng. This print was apparently taken from a revival edition that came out a decade or more after its release. The story is split into two parts and the running time around 180 mins. Apparently, based on what I've read, there was at one time is a longer cut (perhaps the one screened at Cannes?) which ran 200 mins, as well as a substantially shorter cut around 120 mins. Needless to say, this is the cut that is the most well-known and often seen by fans of the film.

Picture: Non-anamorphic. Letterboxed. Well, the picture is not very good, both in terms of the print and the transfer. While the sharpness and color are in pretty good shape, especially considering the age and genre, the contrast is very weak. Overall the dark levels and definition suffer, which makes the night scenes hard to distinguish, especially a major one involving the booby trapped fort. Suffers from artifacts and blocky pixelation, so the image is more akin to a VCD than a DVD... But, it probably is the best looking option US viewers have, certainly far better than any grainy vhs they could dig up.

Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, Mandarin with optional yellow English subtitles. The audio suffers from age- the voices are muffled, the music tinny, and some bits of pops, minor drop-off, and distortion. But, once again, although poor, it is not like there are better options (I havent found a non-US alternative with Eng subtitles).

Extras: Chapter Selections--- King Hu Bio and Filmography.

Conclusion: Begrudgingly, I will recommend this DVD. Begrudging because of the poor quality but recommend because it is a fine piece of cinema. Unfortunately, the film (and most of King Hu's work) has not seen the light of day in a print/transfer that does the film justice, and it really deserves better treatment. So, for those interested in this classic piece of cinema that can turn a forgiving eye on the quality, this DVD will have to suffice. But really, someone needs to turn a kind eye on this film and give it the treatment it deserves.

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