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Issue #175a HOME E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com BACK ISSUES September 1st, 2003

A Touch of Zen
(1969; International Film Production)

A Masterpiece
Highly Recommended
Very Good
Marginal Recommendation
Not Recommended
Definitely Not Recommended

Cantonese: Hap lui
Mandarin: Hsia nu
English: The Gallant Lady

This Taiwanese production from director King Hu Chin-chuen won the Grand Prix du Technique when it was screened at The Cannes Film Festival in 1975. Adapted from Pu Songling's famous "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio," A TOUCH OF ZEN is a beloved classic that helped to define the wuxia pian (martial chivalry film) genre. The picture was released theatrically in two parts and is presented that way on this dual layer DVD.

In Part 1 (100 minutes), we are introduced to Ming Dynasty scholar Ku Shen-chai (RAINING IN THE MOUNTAIN's Shih Jun), who prefers a simple life sketching portraits, rather than taking the exam that would allow him to become an official. His services are engaged by Ouyang Nin (DRAGON INN's Tin Peng), a traveller behaving in a most suspicious fashion. After investigating what appears to be supernatural activity near his home, Shen-chai discovers that the dilapidated dwelling next door is now inhabited by Yang Hui-ching (DRAGON INN's Hsu Feng), a lovely young woman caring for her aged mother. However, when local officials order Shen-chai to draw ten copies of a death warrant for Hui-ching, he realizes that the woman he has developed feelings for is wanted by the ruthless Eunuch Wei of the East Chamber. With the help of honest military men, General Shih (LADY WHIRLWIND's Pai Ying) and General Lu (THE ONE-ARMED BOXER's Sit Hon), and some martially adept monks (led by Roy Chiao Hung as Abbot Hui Yuan), Hui-ching managed to evade Wei's assassins in the past but they are now headed straight for her en masse.

In Part 2 (87 minutes), Hui-ching and her compatriots decide to lure enemy troops into a trap by sending the commander a bogus letter signed by Ouyang. The abandoned villa next to Shen-chai's home is rumored among the villagers to be haunted, so the rebels play upon these fears in order to keep their opponents nervous and off-balance. For his own safety, Hui-ching leaves Shen-chai behind following the battle but the scholar doggedly pursues her. Hui-ching's efforts to protect him lead to a battle with the East Chamber Guard forces (led by FISTS OF FURY's Han Ying-chieh) that climaxes with the intervention of Hui Yuan.

As is the norm with King Hu's work, A TOUCH OF ZEN is an extremely handsome and majestic production. Some viewers will feel that the director was influenced by the classic Japanese samurai films of the early 60s, via the emphasis placed on formality of compositions, character demeanour, and political machinations. However, these are actually all common components of Chinese martial arts films from this time. What helps to differentiate them from Japanese productions are the uniquely Chinese elements found in the style of combat (like the effective, early use of wires and trampolines here to render the combatants free of gravity's restraints) and the incorporation of the supernatural (not only through the bogus hauntings in part 1 of ZEN but also in a climactic display of Buddha's power, courtesy of the abbott). Another distinguishing factor in Hu's work is his incorporation of breathtaking, natural scenery to establish mood, along with meticulous blocking and editing to impart the amazing poise and grace shown by his protagonists. In contrast to most martial arts films, these skirmishes unfold sans music or exaggerated sound FX, and this is in-keeping with the style Hu uses here. On the one hand, A TOUCH OF ZEN could be viewed as long and slow moving but the pacing is actually an ideal compliment for the serenity and poetic flourishes. This reaches its peak during the finale, when Hui Yuan (who has clearly achieved the highest levels of Buddhism) brushes off his East Chamber opponents with a few mere hand movements. Absolute calm and absolute peace with oneself and the world -- that is the goal that so many protagonists in this genre hope to achieve and this film conveys that freeing of the spirit better than almost any other. The bamboo forest duel at the end of part 1 is probably the picture's most famous sequence (and reportedly influenced the way Ang Lee crafted CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) but there are many equally memorable moments here, and anyone looking for a primer in what makes the wuxia pian such a regal and enduring genre need look no further than here and the director's equally magnificent COME DRINK WITH ME (1966), DRAGON INN (1967), and RAINING IN THE MOUNTAIN (1979). A young Sammo Hung Kam-po appears in the final half hour as one of the East Chamber guards.

Cover art courtesy Tai Seng.

Shih Jun and Hsu Feng. Image courtesy Tai Seng.

Hsu Feng and Pai Ying. Image courtesy Tai Seng.

Roy Chiao (center). Image courtesy Tai Seng.

Shih Jun. Image courtesy Tai Seng.
Tai Seng #26784 (U.S. label)

Dolby Digital 2.0

Post-synced Mandarin Language Track

Optional English Subtitles

21 Chapters -- Not Illustrated

Letterboxed (2.40:1)

Coded for ALL Regions

Macrovision Encoded

NTSC Format

187 Minutes

Contains moderate violence

DVD menu courtesy Tai Seng.

Australia: PG
Finland: K-16
Great Britain: 12
Ontario: PG
Singapore: PG

The non-anamorphic 2.40:1 presentation is reportedly identical to the master used for an earlier South Korean DVD (which lacked English subtitles). The image is generally sharp but blacks are on the light side, contrasts are not always distinctive (particularly during a long night sequence in the opening third of part 2) and hues tend to be a bit pale. Monitor adjustments help to compensate somewhat but pumping up the color has the side effect of making the optional yellow English subtitles neon bright. The element displays light but generally unobtrusive wear; the splice is visible at the point of some shot changes. The film is presented in its original Mandarin version and the audio is definitely the weak point of the disc. Evidently culled from the print's optical track, the sound is very hissy and brittle throughout, with no lower end at all and a handful of brief dropouts. Given the age of the track, sonic limitations are certainly to be expected but digital enhancement could have provided a somewhat fuller and richer track than we get here. Overall, the presentation is decent and represents a significant improvement over the cropboxed and heavily paraphrased version that aired on BBC2 in the late 90s. Bending is occasionally evident at the vertical extremes of the frame but this is a fault of the CinemaScope lens used during the production. The only extra is a King Hu bio/filmography. The cover shortchanges the running time at only 180m and the layer change is awkwardly placed right in the middle of the bamboo forest duel (this sequence is reprised at the beginning of part 2 and can thus be viewed there without the freeze frame).

A TOUCH OF ZEN is available at Poker Industries.

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