A Touch Of Zen (1971)

Directed by
Greatest martial arts film of all time?
Reviewed by Simon on 2006-04-25

I shall have to write a few quick words about A TOUCH OF ZEN, because I apparently haven't reviewed it before! At 3 hours in length, King Hu's masterwork is probably the most ambitious martial arts film ever made, and certainly one of the best. The film has a unique three act structure, with the plot unfolding in layers - it begins small (the opening shot of a spider weaving a web is an iconic image that presages what is to come) and slowly builds to something much larger... reaching a level of profundity few films of any genre can claim to reach. This is certainly not "chop socky"!

It is also one of the most beautiful martial arts films - King Hu's eye for camera placement is remarkable, and almost any frame from the film could be used as a poster.

The film's action scenes were also ground-breaking, particularly the infamous fight in a bamboo forest. The use of quick cuts, with flashes and hints of movement to convey the supernatural speed, grace and agility of the legendary warriors of the jiang hu, was a profound influence on many films that followed it.

35 years later, A TOUCH OF ZEN is still the film by which all other martial arts films are measured... including the director's other works, which is in some ways unfortunate for him. After setting such a high standard, there was really nowhere for his career to go but down, and despite making some more great films in the 70's, King Hu's relatively slow work rate apparently doomed him to never have the kind of success and fame that some of his peers (and imitators) would enjoy. An attempt by Tsui Hark to revive his career with 1990's Swordsman didn't work out - only one shot directed by King made the final cut - and he died in 1997 with the vast majority of his work unavailable on home video and unseen for years. Even now, many of his films are difficult to find on DVD, and only a few have received the kind of remastering they deserve - criminally, this does not even include A TOUCH OF ZEN!

But, the film is at least out on dvd in a few countries, so it can be seen by the sufficiently dedicated - which should be enough to ensure that its reputation lives on :)