Film Review: A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)

Film Review: A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)

Aug 3, 2016

IMDb: A Touch of Zen (1971)
Director: King Hu
Stars: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai

The latest release from The Criterion Collection is A Touch of Zen, directed by King Hu. It is a 1971 epic martial arts film that is absolutely awesome to watch. This was a blind buy for me. I saw it available for pre-order during the Barnes and Noble half off sale. I figured it was a martial arts film that was actually in color. All too often, Criterion releases very old Asian classics. I have no problem with this, as I own numerous Kurosawa releases. It is just that a film made as late as 1971 and in color really catches the eye when browsing this label’s catalog.


The second I put this movie in, it reminded me of my recent review of the two Lady Snowblood films from The Criterion Collection. While Lady Snowblood is my first recommendation for the collector getting into this genre and label, A Touch of Zen is a close second. I also mention this set because it has quite a bit in common with this film. Sure A Touch of Zen is also in color and features a female protagonist. All of these films, however, and most importantly, are also surprisingly violent cinematic endeavors that manage to mix visionary filmmaking with awesome action sequences. They also exhibit amazing cinematography and great musical scores.

As far as A Touch of Zen goes, you first must know that it is a three hour film. The first hour is full of exposition. You spend a lot of time getting to know characters, only to have to some pretty important secrets revealed that eventually lead to the action of the final two thirds. The opening hour has awesome cinematography, with landscape scenes that could have come off of a professional photography website. The mountains and villages set against the vast sky is photogenic and poetic. As you move throughout the countryside you are also introduced to very artistically shot forest, snow, and water scenes.

As the epic part of this story progresses, our character’s quests become more like the heroes journey in the traditional epic poems you remember from mythology lessons in school. The main protagonist deals with blind fortune tellers, family secrets, a journey towards enlightenment, and bloody quests that don’t skimp on twists and turns. As a film from a “Criterion” level director, this also does imaginary things with split screens, sound editing, and amazing fight choreography. It does an amazing job of combining the ideas of classical literature with the modern filmmaking techniques of the time. It is  just a downright awesome film. While I am purposely leaving many things out about our female protagonist, know that she is as brutal as she is theatrically trained. Her story is one that may remind you of something like Lady Snowblood meets Star Wars.

In the end, the best thing about this film was the fact that it was very affordable. Since I made a budgetary decision during the half off sale, I went for the standard edition DVD for fifteen dollars. After witnessing the sound and cinematography, however, I really wish I would have coughed up the extra money for the Blu-ray. With all of this half price talk being thrown around, I think this is actually a Criterion release that I would still pay full price for without regret.