Celebrated as the first non-Mainland Chinese film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival (in 1975), and released during the peak of contemporary Western fascination with the martial arts genre epitomised by the charismatic stardom of Bruce Lee, Xia nü (A Touch of Zen, 1971) appeared the one example of the form to justify the epithet “art film”, in the same way that Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) helped legitimise the Italian Western. Despite the partial irritation of Asian critics such as Stephen Teo, who justifiably felt that such recognition was made at the cost of neglecting other talents such as Li Han-hsiang (under whom King Hu had worked), there can be no serious denial of Hu’s preeminence despite the fact that technological developments now allow us access to a more broader realm of wuxia films than before. (1) While we can now see A Touch of Zen against a very necessary and relevant context, it is still possible to applaud its broader achievement and status as a masterpiece of world cinema. The work of Stephen Teo (2) and other scholars has been instrumental in explaining Chinese cultural contexts influencing a film that also employs other elements familiar from Western cinema.
After opening scenes showing a spider web with different types of prey being trapped and devoured – an apt metaphor for the main narrative of the film involving the Eastern Group’s attempt to trap the last survivor of a renegade family and her allies in its political game – the image shifts to beautiful landscape scenes before showing the deserted fort that will be the major focus of a later deadly assault. After introducing scholar Gu Zhengzhai (Shi Jun) and his mother who banter about marriage and career prospects in a scene familiar from any domestic Chinese comedy, the film moves towards its opening Chinese checkers (or chess in Western terms) strategy with Gu being an unwitting pawn whom director Hu moves to begin his cinematic game (though each piece on a Chinese checkers board is equal and not arranged hierarchically as in the Western chess). This cinematic use of a Chinese checkers analogy with different characters confronting each other is a recognisable Hu motif that also appears in the Inn trilogy: Da zui xia (Come Drink with Me, 1966), Long men kezhan (Dragon Gate Inn, 1967), and Ying chun ge zhi Fengbo (The Fate of Lee Khan, 1973). But this time it occurs outside rather than inside as Eastern agent Ouyang Nian (Tian Peng) interrogates Gu about events in his village. In Hu’s Kong shan ling yu (Raining in the Mountain, 1979), this symbolic strategy occurs both inside and outside the monastery while Zhong lie tu (The Valiant Ones, 1975) reveals its employment outside when the patriots are surrounded by Japanese pirates in the bamboo forest.
Both men face each other like opposing players in a checkers game. The film also introduces disguised knightly characters General Shi (Bai Ying) and General Lu (Xue Han), as well as the jarringly brief appearance of some Buddhist monks, all of whom will play major roles in later movements of the director’s cinematic gamesmanship strategies. Hu often uses shadow imagery to introduce Ouyang in his opening investigative scenes, as in his initial visit to Gu’s Portrait and Scenery Painting business to pry information from the unsuspecting scholar. In a possible homage to Lee Van Cleef’s deadly encounter with Antonio Casas in the second prologue to Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Hu zooms in to Ouyang’s eyes as he visually interrogates his suspect, the shadow of his bamboo hat cast above his eyes. However, Gu has no information concerning any casket of gold or the identity of those Ouyang seeks, so the mysterious investigator promises to return tomorrow unlike in the Leone film. Another Italian Western derived close-up of Ouyang’s eyes occurs later when he confronts General Shi masquerading as a blind fortune teller.
At this point the film utilises the mechanics of the detective story before it moves into the realms of the supernatural as Gu discovers a new tenant in the deserted fort. This manipulation of Gu and the audience anticipates later supernatural trickery played on Eastern Group forces in the film’s second part. But rather than encountering a female ghost like Joey Wang in the later Chinese Ghost Story (1987-91) series – derived from Sien, the Female Ghost written by Pu Songling (1640-1715), who also wrote Xia nü the source of A Touch of Zen, and also filmed by Li Han-hsiang in 1960 – Gu finds instead the human figure of Yang Huizen (Xu Feng), sole surviving daughter of a noble family decimated by the Eastern Group in a political coup. This is the first of many instances where the director refers to conventions familiar to both Eastern and Western audiences only to undermine them. Deceptive appearances later fool the numerically superior forces led by Men Dan in his attack on the fort. In the morning light Gu laughs at the deception with mechanical theatrical devices exposed in broad daylight and appearing less threatening than they did in the dark. However, the situation is reversed with the joke being on him (and the audience who may be laughing with him in complicity up to this point) when he stumbles over a corpse and finally realises the bloodshed that has occurred during the previous evening. Despite delight in his scholastic strategy of overcoming huge numbers by trickery, the effect is far from a Chinese checkers manoeuvre but one that costs lives as it does in other Hu films. The game has very serious overtones.
As well as containing references to past and future Hu films, A Touch of Zen operates as a compilation of Eastern and Western stylistic features familiar to contemporary audiences such as a zoom lens used much more sparingly than in many other Shaw Brothers films; choker close-ups of eyes (familiar from Italian Westerns and contemporary martial arts films); slow-motion shots; rocky Taiwanese landscape backgrounds anticipating the climax of The Valiant Ones (and perhaps derived from Anthony Mann Westerns); Hu’s own repertory company of familiar faces such as Shi Jun, Xu Feng, Bai Ying, Han Jingjie, and a young Sammo Hung, who would continue the development of Beijing Opera martial arts direction (pioneered by Han Jingjie) in later films such as The Valiant Ones and Hua pi zhi: Yin fang fa wang (Painted Skin, 1993); bamboo forest swordfights; visually beautiful compositions reminiscent of the director’s interest in calligraphy; Beijing Opera-style musical introductions to Eastern Group representatives (recognisable to viewers of Dragon Gate Inn) that punctuate each appearance of Bai Ying’s villainous white-haired eunuch; as well as a brief use of split-screen anticipating its use by directors such as Robert Aldrich in Emperor of the North (1973) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and Brian De Palma in Sisters (1973) and Carrie (1976). Unlike the usual wuxia film, the initial swordfight does not occur until 56 minutes into the narrative when Yang and Ouyang finally clash (after tension builds up as it also does in Kobayashi’s Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu [Samurai Rebellion, 1967]). Referring to the metaphoric use of Li Bai’s poem Drinking Alone Under the Moon sung by Yang Huizhen before her “brief encounter” with Gu, as well as other poetic elements in the film, Ma Guogang draws an implicit parallel with Alexandre Astruc’s concept of the camera-stylo when he states “The camera in A Touch of Zen is like a pen writing prose” (3).
This subtle fusion of Eastern and Western cinematic elements is not entirely accidental. According to a 1975 interview, Hu mentioned that the Ming Dynasty was a period “when Western influences first reached China” and that he conceived his films as critiques of the James Bond movies by depicting the ruthless practices of the “Dong Shang” or Eastern Group Secret Service (4).
During the climactic scene when devious Commander Xu Xianchun (Han Yingjie) makes his last attempt to capture Yang, the imagery moves towards the realm of transcendentalism, challenging both viewer and villain to decipher what is exactly occurring. In the previous conflict, Hu uses the trampoline technique to transcend the usual cinematic representation of space and time (that he will perfect in The Valiant Ones) during the battle between Bai Ying’s hero and Sammo Hung’s white-faced Japanese pirate Hakkatsu, whose facial features evoke memories of the white-haired eunuch from Dragon Gate Inn. The minor role of Hung in this sequence as Xu’s son serves as an appropriate introduction to his more developed role in The Valiant Ones. During the slow-motion depiction of trampoline movement Hu cuts to the movement of reeds, water and trees suggesting that the combat moving into the realm of the supernatural that will characterise the final images of his film. After stabbing the venerable Abbott, Xu appears to decimate the survivors in a manner evoking the climax of Dragon Gate Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones (where few live to tell the tale). But it is here that supposedly normal comprehension and deductive meaning become challenged in a climax moving towards the realm of avant-garde cinema.
As Hui Yuan pulls out the dagger, he appears to bleed gold. Standing silhouetted against the sun – which appears as a transformative force – the fatally wounded Hui Yuan transcends into another dimension. Hu uses colour negative to evoke fourth dimensional imagery: the unreal colours alters our perspective and we are again put at the point of hesitation, unsure of what is real or an illusion. (5)
The Abbot is certainly undergoing “a process whereby he achieves Buddhahood”, as both Teo and Mary Farquar note. But the direction towards which his arm points is mysterious. Is he suggesting survivors return to the world of involvement? (6) The appearance of the monastery in the next shot, against the clouds within a background of gold, seems to deny this. In a climax where any fixed interpretation appears impossible, it may be the case that Hui directs the survivors to the area of refuge that the monastery once was. But we see the monastery vanish and the gold background remain. It is almost as if Hu suggests continuing an attempt to find a refuge, whether from the espionage activities of the Ming Dynasty Eastern Group or the turbulent world of his time (with Maoist China in conflict with a capitalist West), and a move toward some goal of transcendence (7). This is not mere escapism since one of his subsequent films, Raining in the Mountain, reveals a monastery not immune from outside pressures but striving to reach some form of peace and equilibrium that will one day extend beyond its borders. Like any major artist, King Hu cannot literarily describe that future utopia of harmonious resolution but only suggest it by using transcendental cinematic techniques of his own that go beyond conventional narrative representations.
- Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, BFI, London, 1997, p. 87; Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2009, pp. 115-143.
- See Stephen Teo, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2007.
- Ma Guogang, “A Touch of Zen: Blood Draining into Poetry”, Transcending the Times: King Hu and Eileen Chang, ed. Law Kar, Provisional Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1998, p. 65; Alexandre Astruc, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: la camera-stylo”, The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham, BFI, London, 1970, pp. 17-18, 22 (originally published in Ecran Francais no. 144, 1948). See also Alexandre Astruc for some painterly parallels in Mizoguchi that also operate in King Hu’s work in “What is mise en scène?”, Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1985, pp. 266-268; Olivier Assayas, “King Hu, Géant Exilé”, Cahiers du Cinéma nos. 360-361, 1984, pp.17-19; David Bordwell, “Richness Through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse”, Transcending the Times, pp. 32-39; Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, pp. 254-260; King Hu, “Calligraphie et Simulacres”, Cahiers du Cinéma no. 360-361, pp. 20-14; Vicki Ooi, “Jacobean Drama and the Martial Arts Films of King Hu: A Study in Power and Corruption”, Australian Journal of Screen Theory no. 7, 1980, pp. 103-125; Tony Rayns, “Director King Hu”, Sight and Sound vol. 45, no. 1, Winter 1975-76, pp. 8-13; and David Sterritt, “A Touch of Zen”, Directory of World Cinema: China, ed. Gary Bettinson, Intellect, Bristol, 2012, pp. 176-177.
- See Yves Gendron, “A Glimpse Inside the Inn: Context and Subtext of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn”, http://www.brns.com/pages4/fantasy66.html; Charles O. Hucker, “Governmental Organization of the Ming Dynasty”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies no. 21, 1958, p. 25; Tony Rayns, “Laying Foundations: Dragon Gate Inn”, Cinemaya no. 39-40, 1998, p. 82; Robert B. Crawford, “Eunuch Power in the Ming Dynasty”, Tung Pao, Second Series vol. 49, no. 3, 1961, pp. 146-148; Henry Tsi Shih-Shan, The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty, State University of New York Press, New York, 1995.
- Teo, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, pp. 100-101.
- Teo, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, p. 102; Mary Farquhar, “A Touch of Zen: Action in Martial Arts Movies”, Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, ed. Chris Berry, BFI, London 2003, pp. 172-173.
- Rayns suggests this “political resonance” (p. 82).
Xia nü/A Touch of Zen (1971 Taiwan/Hong Kong 180 mins)
Prod Co: Union Film Company Prod: Xia Wu Liangfang Dir, Ed: King Hu Scr: King Hu, adapted from “The Gallant Lady” in Strange Stories of Liu Jai by Pu Songling Phot: Hua Huiying Prod Des: Chen Shanglin Mus: Wu Dajiang Martial Arts Dir: Han Yingije, Pan Yaokun
Cast: Xu Feng, Shi Jun, Bai Ying, Tian Peng, Xue Han, Roy Chiao, Han Yingjie, Sammo Hung