A Touch Of Zen (HK 1971)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 12/16/00
Director: King Hu
Cast: Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, cameo by Samo Hung

Better get yourself comfortable before watching this film, because it's just short of three hours long. This is a beautiful and entrancing classical swordplay drama from legendary director King Hu. The meandering story initially follows a timid artist and scholar named Ku, whose mother constantly berates him for being a lousy son and not being able to find a wife. His life takes a radical turn when he meets the savagely and impossibly pretty Miss Yang (Hsu Feng) who is on the run from the Emperor for a crime her father was framed for. Ku allies himself with Yang and her friends and devises a strategy to defeat her pursuers. Not content to end at a logical stopping point, the story shifts dramatically in the last hour of the film as Ku disappears entirely and Yang seeks to complete her vengeance with the help of a Buddhist monk (stately Roy Chiao). The final half hour becomes a confusing mess of combat and religious imagery, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

First of all, the film is gorgeous and full of vivid colors, lush scenery, and breathtaking cinematography. As you would expect from a three hour long epic, the pacing is slow, but Hu's deft direction and charismatic characters keep you constantly interested in what's going on. The combat sequences are fair to good, focusing more on the dramatic struggle than the actual physical execution. Roy Chiao gets the "ultimate bad-ass" award for his unflinching performance and shows us the true essence of Shaolin kung fu years before the genre would become popular. But the highlight of the film is watching Hsu Feng, whose intensity and piercing glare tears the screen apart. She is superb and embodies every aspect of female empowerment. Her swordplay and kung fu are also quite good and she literally owns the film. Good stuff, but a tad too long.