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A Touch of Zen

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VincentP 4.75 A mesmerising flirtation with the supernatural.
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A mesmerising flirtation with the supernatural.

When A Touch of Zen ran the Cannes Film festival in 1975, Mandarin cinema earned a long due recognition from the western public. The film only won a technical award then, but King Hu was henceforth established as a major director. His first inspiration for this movie was to transpose the ghostly world of Pu Sung-Ling onto the screen. There had been few attempts hitherto (to my knowledge), the most notable being Li Han-Hsiang's Enchanting Shadow in the late 1950s.

King Hu must have been strongly influenced by Pu Sung-Ling in his paradoxical portrayal of sexes, inverting the roles of men and women as he had done in Come Drink with Me. Pu Sung Ling often refered to very cruel women in his tales (often turning out to be reincarnations of tormented spirits), who would brutalize and even mutilate their husbands. But here King Hu wanted to adapt a particular tale from the Laio-Chai Chi-i (‘Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio’), involving a fierce female warrior, with ‘a touch of zen’, which explains the title. Yet the alleged cruelty of women as they were described by Pu is reasserted in the bewildering opening sequence bringing an extra touch of entomology to the whole thing. The sight of spiders devouring each other is actually symbolical of the connubial violence depicted in Pu Sung-Ling’s short stories. A female devouring the male after mating, that’s the fate which seems to loom over Ku—a thirtyish scholar who still lives with his mum and earns his life painting portraits— after having met, and eventually slept with the mysterious and charming dweller of the ruined temple, if the story had to comply to the folklore of wondering spirits as conveyed by Pu Sung-Ling.

Yet such a thing does not happen, but in a sense the whole film revolves around Ku's interrogations about Miss Yang's true nature, and whether she might be a kind of spirit or not. The supernatural then takes another aspect, in the superhuman martial skills of this otherwise unearthly beauty who turns out to be fleeing from the executioners of her dissenting father. An other inversion of sexes similar to the one observed in Come Drink with Me occurs when Ku shelters his deadly mate, and manages to mitigate her ferocity by offering her a sensible plan. Thus the story moves towards a plot of political intrigue which triggers the stunning action scenes the film is reputed for (cf the celebrated bamboo forest fight scene), but the supernatural element never really vanishes, and soon reappears under the form of ghosts, which, even though fake, bring about the most terrifying moments of the film, and cause the fiendish nature of Miss Yang to linger till the end of the film, in complete contradiction with the seemingly holy teachings she has received from the omnipresent Hui Yuan, the Buddhist priest Roy Chiao as the holy Hui Yuanmagistrally interpreted by Roy Chiao who initially shelters her from her assailants. The figure of the Buddhist priest often intervenes in Pu Sung ling's stories in order to restore karma in a troubled situation and to put an end to reincarnations of vengeful spirits, and in a way the character of Hui Yan fulfills this role by letting Miss Yang give birth to the baby she has presumably conceived with Ku. Yui Han's character allows King Hu to rehabilitate the buddhist faith which had often been portrayed in a very negative light in Mandarin films since the mid 1960s (corresponding with the onset of the Cultural revolution), especially as he is presented as bleeding gold after he has been tricked and stabbed by the bad guys (among whom Sammo Hung acts in one of his early apparitions).

The mystic and almost psychedelic aura of the last scene give the film its last touches of magic, and leave us with nothing short of a cinematographic miracle, an untimely and seminal masterpiece which has little to envy to its latterday offspring (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero... ).

23 January 2004
by VincentP

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