Never pick a fight with a Buddhist abbot on the brink of enlightenment, especially if he is played by Roy Chiao. That would necessarily mean you are the evil one, since his virtue is plain as the rays of righteousness emanating from him. Of course, Abbot Hui Yuan has largely forsaken worldly matters, but the agents of the evil Eunuch Wei are perversely determined to involve the master of masters. Wuxia spectacle reaches the highest levels of art and spirituality in King Hu’s masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (trailer here), which re-releases in its complete, 4K restored glory this Friday at Film Forum.
The story of Zen’s tempestuous, years-in-the-making production and initially hacked-up, Weinsteinized release is an epic in itself. It was not until a nearly complete cut won universal acclaim and the grand technical prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival that Hu’s producers realized they had something special on their hands. Years later, Zen’s influence would continue to be felt in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Dragons.
Yet, it all starts in an unassuming manner in a sleepy provincial village, where the unmarried scholar-artist Gu Shengzhai’s lack of ambition drives his mother to distraction. One day, a stranger in town agrees to sit for a portrait, apparently as a way to prime Gu for local information and possibly kill some time. When Gu starts to follow the mysterious Ouyang Nian, he soon detects the outsider’s interest in three recent arrivals in town: the new doctor, a maybe not so blind fortune teller, and Yang Hui-ching, the destitute beauty squatting with her mother in the ramshackle Jinglu Fort next door.
Although the marriage proposal suggested by Gu’s mother is rebuffed, he and Yang still become close. In fact, her rejection is mostly to protect the naïve scholar. She is the last of a once great family decimated by Wei’s agents in the Eastern Chamber. She has gone into hiding, with only the loyal Generals Shih and Lu for protection. However, Yang is perfectly capable of taking care of herself under ordinary circumstances. That was one of the benefits of her time living under Abbot Hui’s protection. Of course, Hui is no longer inclined to involve himself in such fleeting terrestrial concerns, but when the vicious Chief Commander Hsu Hsien-chen arrives to re-establish Wei’s authority, all bets are off.
Zen is the granddaddy of all modern Wuxia films and the starting point for any discussion of Buddhist-themed cinema. Structurally, it also has a distinctive flow, allowing characters to crest and fall in relatively importance, while still proceeding in a logical fashion from point A to B and on to C. There are also some massively cinematic martial arts sequences, co-choreographed by Hu regular Han Ying-chieh and Hua Hui-ying.
Along the way, Gu evolves from a rather callow coward into the strategist who masterminds their temporary victories of the Eastern Chamber. Shih Chun is well-suited to Gu’s arc, nicely playing him with relaxed silliness in the early going and cerebral intensity down the stretch. Feng Hsu shows the dazzling action chops and slow-burning presence that made her Hu’s go-to heroine throughout the 1970s. Han is also wonderfully devious as the wicked Commander Hsu. Fans should also keep on the lookout during his scenes for a younger, svelter Master Sammo Hung, appearing as one of the villain’s two sons. However, there is no question Roy Chiao takes command of the film and elevates it into the stratosphere with his performance as Abbot Hui. It takes serious gravitas to reach nirvana on-screen, but he and Hu pull it off right before our eyes.