REVIEW: 俠女 [Xia nü] [A Touch of Zen] [1971]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 200 minutes | Release Date: November 18th, 1971 (Hong Kong)
Studio: Shochiku Company / Janus Films / The Criterion Collection
Director(s): King Hu
Writer(s): King Hu / Songling Pu (story)

“One should rather believe in ghosts than not”

It’s enlightening to read writer/director King Hu‘s press notes that accompanied the Cannes premiere of his then newly-cut 俠女 [Xia nü] [A Touch of Zen]. 1975 was four years removed from the film’s original release—as two parts, a format his producers demanded to try recouping some of its ballooning budget—and six years after he began constructing the elaborate sets utilized during a long, piecemeal shooting schedule to combat changing seasons from ruining continuity. He finally received the ability to restore his three-hour unified vision, erasing a studio-cut two-hour version as ill-suited to box office success as the split pair before it. This definitive variant would soon be hailed as a masterpiece and grand inspiration for future wuxia films, Hu’s legacy redeemed on an international stage.

The title itself is an endearing comment on how the auteur could at long-last get a story from his favorite book as a student—Songling Pu‘s Liaozhai zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio)—onscreen. He literally thought “a touch of zen” could do it, the spirituality and philosophical concepts of Buddhism providing the otherwise didactic tales of their author failing to pass imperial exams some much-needed vitality. Hu would ultimately retain some of that feel as his main character Gu Sheng-tsai (Chun Shih), a painter refusing to take those exams, combats a mother’s (Ping-Yu Chang) frustrations in his seemingly listless, unambitious son. But just as Sheng-tsai retreats from rising in status on this worldly plane, his eyes are unwittingly open to the progress of Buddhism’s higher existence.

Sheng-tsai’s curiosity is obvious. He engages strangers rather than ignores, already befriending the village’s new doctor (Han Hsieh‘s Dr. Lu) before proving more than willing to meet the figure currently darkening his sign shop’s door (Peng Tien‘s Ouyang Nian). Everything was extremely quiet up until this point—just long gazes at spiders fighting in webs, gorgeously overgrown foliage, and decrepit old forts. The dialogue comes as a warm welcome, Sheng-tsai’s infectious smile spilling out effusively to earn Ouyang Nian’s attention and time for a portrait. But as quickly as it ended the silence reappears, a tense yet unresolved chase ensuing to expose Nian’s mysterious motives, Sheng-tsai’s inability to mind his own business, and a startlingly random arrival of Buddhist monks as a potentially violent diffusion of violence.

This world building and character study are magnificent—laborious, but never boring. Nian’s deserving of intrigue while Sheng-tsai earns laughter through his genial determination to make his mother understand his goals without falling prey to anger. We’re soon shown a haunted fort left empty next to the Gu residence, a young woman (Feng Hsu‘s Yang Hui-zhen) recently arrived to the country with her ailing mother, and a blind fortuneteller named Shi (Ying Bai). They all appear innocent enough; Sheng-tsai’s interest merely a result of his seeking good company while also selling work and possibly falling in love. Whereas everyone more or less leaves these newcomers alone, he alone begins infringing upon their space. He notices things are amiss and carefully prods them until their drama inevitably envelops him.

Zen is to be experienced through an awakening to the truth known as wu. For us in the audience this is the stunning sword fight choreography inspired by Chinese opera that mesmerizes as it entertains. For Sheng-tsai it is the love of a woman. The former opens our eyes with a stunning battle in the grass between Feng and Peng, the camera almost exclusively positioned behind flora so that our view comes from inside the frame rather than out. It’s been about an hour when this moment hits, the methodical exposition still to be fully explained letting go into action. As for Sheng-tsai, his tryst with Yang empowers him to attention. Hardly a warrior, he has a strategic mind ready to assist in solving this woman’s dire plight.

It’s here that Hu turns the clock back for flashes into the past concerning Yang’s father and his fearlessness to try reporting the corruption of Eunuch Wei’s leadership in the Eastern Depot, a Ming dynasty secret police. Ultimately killed, his entire family was also given a death sentence to match. Thankfully, due to the help of two emissaries, Yang Hui-zhen escapes to be trained for two years by the revered Abbot Hui-yuan (Roy Chiao) in his monastery. It’s here she learns to defend herself with the sword until becoming proficient enough to journey into Sheng-tsai’s village for peace. With Ouyang Nian on her tail, though, Captain Men Da (Jui Wang) can’t be far behind. But while that makes Yang, Sheng-tsai, and their allies outnumbered, home-field advantage is still theirs.

This leads into an evening skirmish of supernatural proportions thanks to rumors of ghosts, a climax that’s successful enough to have ended the film on a high-note of action extravagance and Buddhist awakening to the horrors of death in war. It comes after the aforementioned clash between Feng and Peng—which is my favorite of the bunch—and the famous bamboo forest scene with trampoline twirls and tree top descents as visually impressive through expert cuts as Ang Lee‘s version in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was with the full use of wires. The cinematography, hazy lighting, and precision choreography are invigorating in their beauty and brutality. The way they fight is seemingly so serene, but Hu always shows the sweat and strain these movements actually take upon completion.

The haunted house would be the logical finale for most films and yet there’s still an hour remaining for Hu to delve further into his thesis of good vs. evil, Buddhist peace against governmental corruption. The characters we have been familiar with throughout—those who survived the first two-thirds—are also involved, but this end is really about the monk and the police captain. The latter is Ying-Chieh Han‘s Chief Commander Xu Xian-chun, more vicious and conniving than Men Da ever was. He refuses to acknowledge Abbot Hui-yuan’s grace or spirituality above his own job as jailor. Xu is here to arrest fugitives and if this monk wants to prevent him from doing so he to must also be captured. What ensues falls deeply into fantastical splendor.

I’m not saying the rest wasn’t steeped in magic, just that it’s the epilogue’s main objective. Yang and Sheng-tsai’s story was already finished in its own bittersweet way, what follows therefore proving a jarring transition. As much as it shows how removing one corrupt figure allows another to rise, Hu’s end-cap also depicts mankind’s deceit as means for victory regardless of hope in a universal ideal of empathetic humanity. It shows us evil in its purest form and an eternal truth of spiritual enlightenment transcending the physical form. Suddenly A Touch of Zen is much more than just a touch. That sense of harmony coloring Yang and Sheng-tsai’s quest becomes paramount; it’s immortality as a religion and way of life bigger than any one person or worldly existence.

courtesy of Janus Films

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