A Touch of Zen (1971)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Martial Arts  |   Release Date - Nov 18, 1971 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 180 min.  |   Countries - Taiwan  |  
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One of the finest Chinese-language films ever produced, King Hu's sprawling epic is at once the apogee of the Hong Kong marital arts films and a meditation on human nature. Structured in a manner more akin to Chinese opera than to the Aristotelian three-act structure, Hu's plot line doesn't unfold so much as it evolves. Hu envisioned the narrative progress under a trifurcated thematic rubric based around human consciousness -- the first part being superstition, the second politics, and the third religion. The first two-thirds of the film establishes A Touch of Zen as a masterful genre picture. This film provides some of the best, most inventive, action scenes committed to film. At one point, Yang races up a bamboo grove and then lunges at her enemy from above. Though Hu used few special effects other than hidden trampolines and deft editing, the scene is both thrilling and thoroughly believable. Yet A Touch of Zen's last third is where King Hu shows his true ambitions and where the film rises above genre. Erstwhile main characters Yang and Ku all but recede completely from this section of the picture, giving way to an apocalyptic clash between two supernatural forces. Not only is this sequence breathtaking, but Hu manages to give it an appropriate Miltonian heft without seeming cheesy. The final 20 minutes of the film depart from the material world completely into hardcore metaphysics as the head abbot gains enlightenment, resulting in one of the trippiest endings since 2001. A brilliant montage of the tortured souls, the film's denouement veers into the realm of experimental film. Though little known in the States, A Touch of Zen is one of the handful of films that can be described as an unqualified masterpiece.