A Touch of Zen


3h 20m 1976
A Touch of Zen

Brief Synopsis

An artist helps a beautiful woman fight off the imperial guards who killed her family.

Film Details

Also Known As
Hsia Nu, Sha-Nu, Touch of Zen, Xia nü
MPAA Rating
NR
Genre
Adventure
Action
Adaptation
Drama
Foreign
Period
Release Date
1976
Distribution Company
Janus Films

Technical Specs

Duration
3h 20m

Synopsis

An artist, Ku, lives with his mother near an abandoned fort, reputed to be haunted. One night, investigating strange noises, he meets the beautiful Yang who is living there. She is being pursued by agents of an Imperial noble who have murdered her family. Ku finds himself caught up in her struggle to survive, and many fierce battles take place before all is resolved. Action adventure with a lyrical feel, this is a kung fu film with a strong spiritual element.

Film Details

Also Known As
Hsia Nu, Sha-Nu, Touch of Zen, Xia nü
MPAA Rating
NR
Genre
Adventure
Action
Adaptation
Drama
Foreign
Period
Release Date
1976
Distribution Company
Janus Films

Technical Specs

Duration
3h 20m

Articles

A Touch of Zen


Decades before the wuxia (or martial arts swordplay film) took the Oscars by storm with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), another Taiwanese production laid the groundwork in 1971. Over two years in the making, A Touch of Zen (1971) originally bowed unsuccessfully as a release in two separate parts (with its central forest fight appearing in both versions) before it was combined in the general release version we have now, which was recently restored to its full glory.

Though many martial arts films were (often unjustly) treated as programmers in the majority of international territories, this one managed to rise well above its peers after its rocky start and even nabbed the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, proving to be a feather in the cap of director King Hu. The process of writing the script took six months alone after he had completed his masterpiece Dragon Inn (1967) and being inspired by the writings of Pu Song-ling, a writer at the turn of the 18th century whose supernatural compendium, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, set the filmmaker's imagination afire. One of the stories, "The Heroic Maid," laced with a heavy dose of Buddhist philosophy, the titular touch Zen, proved to be the jumping-off point he needed.

"I discovered that translating the concept of Zen into cinematic terms posed a great many difficulties," Hu noted in his director's statement at Cannes. "I made the acquaintance of an old man who was a devout Buddhist. He told me that Zen is something that can't be explained but only experienced through wu (awakening to the truth)... Wu is not subject to logical analysis. It would be difficult, for example, to explain the concept of sweetness to someone who had never tasted sugar, but giving him a cube of it would be enough to enlighten him once and for all." Though not a practicing Buddhist himself, the Beijing-born director found the idea of Zen pivotal in choosing the locations, costumes, actors, and camera angles, which culminate in a tantalizing spiritual ending that still catches many audience members off guard.

No stranger to martial arts films, Hu made his mark at the landmark Shaw Brothers studio with one of the most visually striking film in its entire canon, Come Drink with Me (1966), which also solidified his affinity for unorthodox, multi-layered female leading roles. Here, the honors are done by Yang (Hsu Feng), a warrior on the run who stashes her mother in an abandoned fort after her father is murdered. Into the ghostly and remote building comes an artist named Gu (Shih Chun), whose fascination with military history inspires both of them to take action against the forces about to surround them.

Interestingly, it is Feng who has been a major player in keeping this film alive over the years. She was originally cast in Dragon Inn but her once-prominent role was whittled down to virtually nothing so she would be available to prepare for this film instead, and she certainly cuts a memorable figure here. She became a major force in the film's restoration under the auspices of the Taiwan Film Institute, which has salvaged a work that hadn't been seen in a remotely presentable version for many years.

Still active and energetic today, she regards the film as a major high point in her career and speaks fondly of working with legendary fight choreographer Han Ying-Chieh, who also appears as Hsu in the film. Previously the martial arts instructor on Dragon Inn, he would go on to his biggest international success as the martial arts instructor for the first two Bruce Lee hits, Fists of Fury (1971) and The Chinese Connection (1972). However, one could argue that his work here has proven to be just as influential today; one need only look at that stunning bamboo forest sequence to see how much it has influenced modern martial arts films from Hong Kong and China, including multiple films by Zhang Yimou such as House of Flying Daggers (2004). With its sense of both physical and spiritual grace, A Touch of Zen is a film ahead of its time and strikingly modern in its look and atmosphere today.

By Nathaniel Thompson
A Touch Of Zen

A Touch of Zen

Decades before the wuxia (or martial arts swordplay film) took the Oscars by storm with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), another Taiwanese production laid the groundwork in 1971. Over two years in the making, A Touch of Zen (1971) originally bowed unsuccessfully as a release in two separate parts (with its central forest fight appearing in both versions) before it was combined in the general release version we have now, which was recently restored to its full glory. Though many martial arts films were (often unjustly) treated as programmers in the majority of international territories, this one managed to rise well above its peers after its rocky start and even nabbed the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, proving to be a feather in the cap of director King Hu. The process of writing the script took six months alone after he had completed his masterpiece Dragon Inn (1967) and being inspired by the writings of Pu Song-ling, a writer at the turn of the 18th century whose supernatural compendium, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, set the filmmaker's imagination afire. One of the stories, "The Heroic Maid," laced with a heavy dose of Buddhist philosophy, the titular touch Zen, proved to be the jumping-off point he needed. "I discovered that translating the concept of Zen into cinematic terms posed a great many difficulties," Hu noted in his director's statement at Cannes. "I made the acquaintance of an old man who was a devout Buddhist. He told me that Zen is something that can't be explained but only experienced through wu (awakening to the truth)... Wu is not subject to logical analysis. It would be difficult, for example, to explain the concept of sweetness to someone who had never tasted sugar, but giving him a cube of it would be enough to enlighten him once and for all." Though not a practicing Buddhist himself, the Beijing-born director found the idea of Zen pivotal in choosing the locations, costumes, actors, and camera angles, which culminate in a tantalizing spiritual ending that still catches many audience members off guard. No stranger to martial arts films, Hu made his mark at the landmark Shaw Brothers studio with one of the most visually striking film in its entire canon, Come Drink with Me (1966), which also solidified his affinity for unorthodox, multi-layered female leading roles. Here, the honors are done by Yang (Hsu Feng), a warrior on the run who stashes her mother in an abandoned fort after her father is murdered. Into the ghostly and remote building comes an artist named Gu (Shih Chun), whose fascination with military history inspires both of them to take action against the forces about to surround them. Interestingly, it is Feng who has been a major player in keeping this film alive over the years. She was originally cast in Dragon Inn but her once-prominent role was whittled down to virtually nothing so she would be available to prepare for this film instead, and she certainly cuts a memorable figure here. She became a major force in the film's restoration under the auspices of the Taiwan Film Institute, which has salvaged a work that hadn't been seen in a remotely presentable version for many years. Still active and energetic today, she regards the film as a major high point in her career and speaks fondly of working with legendary fight choreographer Han Ying-Chieh, who also appears as Hsu in the film. Previously the martial arts instructor on Dragon Inn, he would go on to his biggest international success as the martial arts instructor for the first two Bruce Lee hits, Fists of Fury (1971) and The Chinese Connection (1972). However, one could argue that his work here has proven to be just as influential today; one need only look at that stunning bamboo forest sequence to see how much it has influenced modern martial arts films from Hong Kong and China, including multiple films by Zhang Yimou such as House of Flying Daggers (2004). With its sense of both physical and spiritual grace, A Touch of Zen is a film ahead of its time and strikingly modern in its look and atmosphere today. By Nathaniel Thompson

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States on Video December 10, 2002

Re-released in United States April 22, 2016

Based on a collection of short stories written by Pu Song-ling.

Released in United States March 1976 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Contemporary Cinema) March 18-31, 1976.)

Re-released in United States April 22, 2016

Released in United States March 1976

Released in United States on Video December 10, 2002