• A Touch of Zen



    Released by: Eureka/Masters of Cinema
    Released on: January 25, 2016
    Directed by: King Hu
    Cast: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Roy Chiao, Tien Peng, Cho Kin, Miao Tian, Cheung Bing-yuk, Sit Hon, Wang Shui, Han Ying-chieh
    Year: 1971

    The Movie:

    Unambitious and dull Ku Shen Chai (Chun Shih) helps support his elderly mother (Cheung Bing-yuk) by painting portraits in the village square. One day a stranger shows up in town and asks Shen Chai to paint his portrait. Around the same time, Shen Chai and his mother befriend a mysterious woman (Hsu Feng) who has moved in next door. What they don’t know is that that woman, Yang, is a fugitive from the law, and the stranger has come to apprehend her and deliver her to archaic and prejudiced justice system. The fact is, Yang’s father had tried to warn the Emperor about a corrupt official in his government, and now that official wants to wipe out the man’s family, which of course includes Yang. Shen Chai enters into a relationship with Yang, after which he is transformed into a different, much stronger person, one who isn’t afraid to plot the deaths of others to protect the woman he loves. Extended chase and battle scenes ensue.

    A Touch of Zen began production in Taiwan in 1968 but wasn’t completed until 1971. It was first released as a two-parter before being re-released as a single three-hour feature. An example of the wuxia genre (from wu, meaning martial or military, and xia, meaning heroic), it deals with a passive and bland ‘hero’ who is forced to defend himself and the one he loves, a common theme in films of this type. Wuxia began as a form of literature in and around China, with stories mostly set in the distant past, but it spread to other parts of Asia as well as to cinema, where it remains popular to this day. Other examples include Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The genre’s cinematic roots date back to the silent era, but A Touch of Zen remains one of its most recognizable and deserving classics. The film was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival but was awarded the Technical Grand Prize instead (an understandable achievement) and remains beloved to this day.

    The film is certainly beautiful to look at, with interesting relationship dynamics that aren’t always typical of the genre. While heroes have long been presented as disinterested in the world around them until motivated by outside forces that intrude upon their lives, rarely are they presented as downright lazy and childishly fearful. (Shen Chai even exhibits fear of the dark before his change in personality.) The cinematography is gorgeous, and the effects, wirework, and martial arts choreography are flawless. Yet, the film is not as perfect as its reputation suggests. Its biggest problem is the pacing. The film runs just shy of three hours and feels like it. Some individual scenes go on too long, while others contain far more dialogue than is necessary. Yet others are repetitious. The film would have worked much better on the whole had it been shorn of about an hour. Still, it’s an astounding feat, with striking moments that make the endeavor worthwhile.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    A Touch of Zen comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line in an MPEG-4 AVC encode. The 1080p high-definition transfer is presented in the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks fairly vibrant. Colors are generally quite good, though skin tones sometimes appear a little pale, while detail is sharp during daylight and brightly lit sequences. Nighttime or darker sequences are a little inconsistent; some look phenomenal, with strong color and detail, while others are a tad bit crushed. For the most part, the film has a healthy grain structure that contributes to the pleasing look of the Blu-ray. There are no issues with scratches or tears, though dirt on the actual camera lens during filming is sometimes distracting, particularly when it shows up during the film’s more picturesque sequences (of which there are plenty).

    The sound is presented in Chinese LPCM Audio Mono. The score is minimalist, though there are plenty of sound effects during the fight scenes. In both cases, neither interferes with the dialogue, and the sound is solid in general. Optional English subtitles are included for those who don’t understand Chinese. There’s a scene-specific audio commentary that covers a little less than half the film; that commentary is provided by Tony Rayns, a film historian who has spent much of his career studying films from East Asia, and is a necessity for those seeking to learn more about the picture. To listen to the five sections of the film that contain commentary, viewers should select the commentary option from the menu screen; the sections then play back to back. Rayns discusses the film’s production, history, religious leanings, and symbolism, among other things.

    Given the length of the film, A Touch of Zen has been placed on a 50GB disc and contains only one extra: a fairly modern trailer that lasts less than two minutes.

    The remainder of the extras have been placed on one of the release’s two DVDs. These include King Hu 1932-1997, a 48-minute documentary about the film’s director, and Golden Blood, a video essay about the film from historian David Cairns. Also included in the package is a 36-page booklet that includes the short story on which the film is based. None of these extras were provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! for review and are not reviewed here.

    Eureka’s Blu-ray/DVD release is limited to 2,000 units.

    The Final Word:

    In many ways, A Touch of Zen is a magnificent film, with stunning direction and cinematography and an engaging story. If anything does it in, it’s an extreme running time that at times feels repetitive. The transfer used for Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release is very good, with mostly vivid colors and plenty of detail. Sound is likewise strong. For those who purchase the complete package, there are some terrific extras, from scene-specific commentary by Tony Rayns to a documentary about director King Hu. Fans of the film certainly shouldn’t be disappointed.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Volume 2 of that series (covering the 1930s) is currently available from Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!