A Touch of Zen (1971) directed by King Hu.  This was the first Chinese Kung Fu film to be named a winner at the  Cannes Film Festival.
A Touch of Zen (1971) directed by King Hu. This was the first Chinese Kung Fu film to be named a winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

***I am very happy to welcome Rob Argent back to Kung Fu Tea.  This is the third post in his ongoing series introducing some of the essential Kung Fu films which have helped to define the genera.  The first discussed a film that helped to launch Bruce Lee onto the global stage. The second examined how Jet Li reintroduce China to the Shaolin Temple.  In today’s essay we will look at a film that pushed the boundaries of Kung Fu storytelling in Hong Kong Cinema.****

A Touch of Zen

Since the late nineteen twenties there has been an abundance of martial art related movies, ranging from outlandish fantasy (known in China as wuxia), through gritty hard hitting drama to high concept action pieces. The majority of these have originated from either mainland China or Hong Kong, with the former generally focusing on historically orientated titles and the latter producing more modern, explosive fare. In this series I will be looking at a number of iconic Kung Fu films that, for one reason or another, had a significant effect on the way we watch martial arts on the cinema screen. Some of them are well known and have created certain expectations about the genre, while others are lesser known titles that have provided a different take on how to portray martial artists and their practices. However, all of them are based on Kung Fu first and foremost; different styles are on display, but Chinese martial arts are the centerpiece of each production. Today’s post addresses King Hu’s 1971 epic, A Touch Of Zen.


Plot Summary

A meek artist named Ku Shen Chai, living solely to support his mother and study, is drawn into a world of corruption and violence when he stumbles upon mysterious warrior Yuan Hui-Ching. Falling for her charms despite her sole devotion to avenging her disgraced father, the two are pursued by murderous Imperial agents of the Ming Dynasty across China in a bid for freedom. Eventually the appearance of a mysterious, all powerful Buddhist monk changes the travelers’ plans and their fates become intertwined as they face increasingly overwhelming odds as well as their own changing views on morality and mortality. 

A still from touch of Zen.
A still from touch of Zen.

From Yin to Yang (And Back Again)

From the sixties onwards Kung Fu films had become synonymous with machismo – violent tales that were eager to show acrobatic and martial abilities of their characters, who would often overcome large, seemingly insurmountable numbers of foes. The victory of the individual, both over their enemies and themselves, was the main focus and even if there were a significant amount of lead female stars, the stories themselves were still testosterone driven action pieces. Whilst good at showing the physical nature of the martial arts, the Kung Fu genre often overlooked any spiritual connotations in the arts, and with an understandable – if not entirely valid – reason. Having your main protagonist cut short their vicious path of destruction to become an enlightened monk won’t please the ticket-buying public.

This all changed with King Hu’s work.  In 1971 A Touch Of Zen was the first Chinese action film to win an award at the prestigious Cannes film festival, although labeling it as an action film might not be completely correct. Admittedly the movie follows a lot of typical genre conventions, partly because King Hu himself helped establish them, to maintain its Jiang Hu setting of wandering warriors and nefarious authority figures. The strong female lead character is here as well, in this case played by a precocious Hsu Feng who was only 18 at the time.  So are its requisite fight scenes and strong emphasis on retribution. But at the same time, its long run time, lush cinematography (filmed on location as opposed to the generic, identikit back-lots of the studios) and Buddhist influence on the plot makes it stand out from its contemporaries.

Split into three overlapping story arcs that utilize the same cast of characters, the film opens with a long, protracted scene of spider webs and trees, before piercing sunlight break through the woods. Within the first few minutes you are welcomed with unexplained, striking images that carry strong symbolism that will echo throughout the next three hours. The dark, murky woods and tangled lines of the cobwebs come to represent the evil machinations of the malicious Imperial Eunuch and his omnipresent East Chamber guards, whilst the dazzling clarity of the high noon sun is associated with the almost blinding power of the Buddhist teachings and truth itself. The combat shown on screen is initially dominated by small numbers of sword carrying fighters – Hu was heavily influenced by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa and the Samurai films of the fifties, hence this choice in weaponry – but this grounded realism slowly begins to give way as the story’s more otherworldly elements come into play. Hidden trampolines are used to give the actors large, graceful jumps, whilst the open handed strikes of the Buddhist Abbot Hui Yuan are more devastating than any weapon used in the film. By the time the final battle arrives matters have become ambiguous and deliberately open to interpretation. The individuals become avatars for good and evil, personifying the opposing forces of human nature. The deciding factor in who wins each fight doesn’t come down to their skill on the battlefield, or their armory, but instead their karma.


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Karma with Kung Fu

On a similar note, the plot doesn’t concern itself so much with whether or not the main protagonists complete their objectives or not, but is instead more interested in the changes in their personality and beliefs. The corrupt Eunuch’s influence permeates the film, with his watchful servants tracking Ku Shen-Chai and his accomplices from one location to another, always reminding them of the enemy that they seek to overthrow. But even with the ever present threat of the East Chamber guards, there are long periods of the film given to showing Ku Shen-Chai’s change from an innocent, bookish man who is happy with his lot in life, to an impassioned, ambitious revolutionary, on to a mindful, learned adult. Yang Hui-Ching, meanwhile, enters the movie completely driven by the need to punish the Eunuch (whether out of honor, righteousness or spite is hard to say) but eventually realizes the pain and suffering her actions cause, not only to those who she faces, but to herself as well. Abbot Hui Yuan’s benevolent presence offers a balanced counterpoint to the numerous villains, extolling Buddhist values that demonstrate how ineffective violence – and the threat of violence – can be whilst also showing that one can still stand up for themselves.


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The Rise And Fall Of King Hu

The tale, and the very nature of A Touch Of Zen, is intrinsically linked to King Hu.  He was a renowned director even before undertaking this movie. The likes of Come Drink With Me in 1966 and Dragon Gate Inn the year after had established his recurring idea of a strong female lead, and the two films had enjoyed enormous success due to their high quality production. Eager to continue this winning streak, Hu’s next film was to be his most ambitious yet.

Drawing inspiration from the Qing/Manchu dynasty writer P’u Sung-Ling’s works from Strange Stories From A Chinese Studio, which themselves are a curious blend of fables, ghost stories and morality tales, the script he was working on took the Kung Fu genre and shot it through with supernatural and religious elements. Sung-Ling’s work, known as Liao-Chai Chih-Yi displayed motifs of spirits and ethereal creatures influencing the lives of mortals, creating a surreal, off hand style cinema has affected by adapting some of these stories into titles such as Painted Skin and A Chinese Ghost Story. Hu took these simple narratives as a starting point before adding heavy Buddhist leanings to the film; a prime example of this is that all of the characters must face the consequences for their actions, and while this was often shown in Chinese movies at the time (as encouraged through the Chinese film board), it was never to the extent that Hu went.

The script plays on superstition from the beginning, with the implication that the abandoned Ching Lu fort where most of the action takes place is haunted. The arrival of night-time brings with it shadowy figures leaping – almost unnaturally due to the stunt team’s use of trampolines – over walls, and into inky black darkness. The East Chamber guards are at one point almost frightened off by an impressive play on their fears of ghosts that are said to surround the fort, giving the main characters an advantage in their battle with them. The opening comments about the site being full of the dead may even be an allusion to the idea that all of the people in the film are already spirits.

A Touch Of Zen took a full two years to make, which at the time was considered extraordinary. Nowadays it is not uncommon for larger franchises to take their time due to the expected financial returns (the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars series being good illustrations of this).  Yet this picture was made during the boom time of Hong Kong’s film industry when the major studios were in fierce competition with each other for dominance of both the Hong Kong and mainland China box offices. Titles were rushed out to capitalize on any recent trends and it was not uncommon for filmmakers to be writing, shooting and editing several movies at the same time.

In the middle of all this, King Hu had a full village constructed simply for the opening half of the film, and then left it unattended for several months to give it a weathered look. His ambition greatly outreached many of his contemporaries but this also pushed the whole production massively over budget and over schedule. Whilst he was initially vaunted for his exceptional dedication to each film he made, thanks in part to an adoring critical and commercial response to each one, Hu fell out with the producers during this time. Added to this was the fact that once finished, the run time was so long that he was made to split it into two parts so that they could market it as two separate films in an attempt to recover their costs. Fortunately the DVD versions available nowadays are of the original three hour run as the director intended.


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Paving the Way

Whilst seemingly on his own in this single minded dedication to an art-house approach to Kung Fu cinema, Hu paved the way for the likes of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s work with slow considered plots that dwell on characters and just so happen to have martial arts action as well. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Lee is probably the most well known of this style, but Yimou’s numerous forays into this genre, namely Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, all follow the path laid down by this movie. A Touch Of Zen opens in the middle of the night and ends in glaring mid day sun, demonstrating the care for the aesthetics of every single scene and not just the fights.

Many critics have been vocal about their unhappiness with the divergence in the martial arts genre, where some of the more commercially successful ones have softened the action and spent more time on the plot; this has in turn led to other films pushing back towards the violent, hard hitting styles that were popular before. Now, audiences have a film style that caters for those who want action, drama or both.

This film is essential to the genre because of the above, and without it the Kung Fu movie industry would have begun to stagnate and rely too heavily on clichés and “by the numbers” action scenes. Although a fascinating failure of sorts at the time, A Touch Of Zen’s reputation has steadily grown over the years, being celebrated not only for its delivery of a gripping martial plot but also for its lavish production, existential influences and detailed character studies. In the sixties and seventies, producing a fight film was not necessarily considered a prestigious job, due to the sheer number of them and the workmanlike creation of them. At a time when some movie-makers were managing to write, film and star in several titles at any one time, King Hu’s epic stands out for all the right reasons. Nowadays, acclaimed directors are unafraid to try their hand at martial arts movies due to the artistic merit attached to the genre, and this is in part down to A Touch Of Zen.


About the Author:  Rob Argent is a  freelance writer with a degree in English language and literature.  He has previously trained in Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai and he is currently studying Taiji Quan.  He lives in Birmingham, England with his two pet fish.

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Sugong: Nick Hurst Explores South East Asia’s Shaolin Kung Fu Tradition.