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Touch of Zen (Xia nu), A
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by Jay Seaver

"Epic wuxia."
5 stars

"A Touch of Zen" is widely considered King Hu's masterpiece, finding respect at the Cannes Film Festival several years after a difficult production and underwhelming box office in its native Taiwan. Though not my favorite of the six films I saw in this series, its position as perhaps Hu's greatest is easy to understand; it's a legitimate epic despite the simple foundation it is built on, and scores a lot of points for succeeding in its ambitions.

It starts at Ching Lu Fort, where the run-down mansion of General Chun Luan is said to be haunted. Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) lives next door along with his mother (Cheung Bing-yuk); he makes a modest living doing portraiture and calligraphy in a nearby town. His latest customer, Ou-yang Nin (Tien Peng), seems to have a particular interest in anybody who came to town recently, and would likely be particularly curious about Yang Hui-ching (Hsu Feng), who has just moved into the abandoned mansion and is almost quite certainly more than meets the eye.

There are a great number of things that King Hu and company do well with A Touch of Zen, but perhaps the best is the creation of a constant air of intrigue. The story offers mysteries, certainly, but simply asking "what are the noises coming from the empty house" or "just why is Ou-yang so interested in Dr. Lu" is the easy part. The real trick is in making Shen-chai's curiosity infectious, so that as the movie follows his actions, the audience feels themselves put in his position, peeking around corners, following suspicious characters, and suddenly finding that nothing is as it seems. Hu does a nice job pulling back the curtain, too - even if a lot of the backstory turns out to be a reprise of Dragon Inn, it's got a new set of enjoyably pulpy details from "The Twenty-Four Crimes of Eunuch Wei" to bodyguards in disguise to monks who cross the screen with quiet but immense power.

It also differs from Dragon Inn in how the action is presented; while that movie has a fairly grounded, relatively realistic approach, A Touch of Zen frequently goes for fights that are larger than life, even though the idea of actual ghosts is dismissed early. It's very easy to see the seeds for modern wuxia films in one the centerpiece that takes place just before intermission (and is reprised immediately after); the battle in a bamboo forest is a clear ancestor of the most famous sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon even if Hu must imply some of the impossible feats rather than show them directly. It's a fierce battle, as are several others, with good work from both Hu's usual group (Hsu Feng, Bai Ying, Shih Jun, Tien Peng, Roy Chiao) and the next generation like Sammo Hung (look closely, and you might see Jackie Chan as an extra).

Hu has a bit more on his mind than action, which may be why the original release which split it into two films was found wanting by contemporary audiences: For all the atmosphere in the first half - and between the overgrown-fortress setting and overall air of mystery, it's got a ton - it takes a while before the swords come out, while the second half of the movie continues for a relatively long time after the climactic battle, with characters wandering on a journey of self-discovery and considering the effects of their actions. Even at a combined length north of three hours, there seem to be missing details, although the story as a whole is told extremely well.

Hsu Feng plays the title character (the film's original Mandarin title, "Xia nu", translates as "swordswoman"), and she's reliably good in it. After seeing a few of her collaborations with King Hu over the course of a weekend, it's not hard to appreciate both the athleticism she brings to the action scenes and how that fierceness carries through to what comes in between, as well as how that life takes a toll on her. In many ways, though, the movie belongs just as much to Shih Jun, whose Shen-chai initially serves mainly as the audience's surrogate as the guy in well over his head; he's even hen-pecked by his mother who wants him to take the civil service exam and marry a nice girl (he's over thirty, after all!). He's good at that, but both he and the movie get a little more interesting when Shen-chai finally has the chance to apply his intellect to something important and it's not an entirely good thing for him. Hsu and Shih handle the unusual direction that this heroine/sidekick romance goes with little more than glances at and away from each other, and that's plenty.

As befits any epic worthy of the title, there's a whole list of characters beyond those two that make an impression: Tien Peng's mysterious stranger who can go in any direction from the outset, Bai Ying as a character who sheds his comic-relief disguise, Roy Chiao as a formidable abbot, and Wang Shui & Han Ying-chieh as villains for the heroes to defeat. The impressive sets have a lived-in look in part because filming went long enough for vegetation to start to grow on them, and while the visuals and music as characters begin soul-searching in the last act aren't outright strange, they're far enough outside the usual to make A Touch of Zen feel grander than the typical martial-arts movie.

And that's pretty great. This movie may have some missing pieces and bits that aren't quite perfect, but it's enough of a cut above the ordinary in many more places. It's one of the movies that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" paid homage to, and it's good enough to make one realize that Ang Lee's boutique-house hit wasn't necessarily elevating the genre from a particularly low position.

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originally posted: 03/28/13 14:22:53
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USA
  N/A
  DVD: 10-Dec-2002

UK
  N/A (12)

Australia
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Directed by
  King Hu

Written by
  King Hu
  Songling Pu

Cast
  Feng Hsu
  Chun Shih
  Ying Bai
  Roy Chiao
  Ying-Chieh Han



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