10TH OLD SCHOOL KUNG FU FEST: A Touch of Zen (1971)

Until the three-hour cut played at the Cannes Film Festival three years after thsi movie was released and received the Technical Grand Prize and almost took home the Palme d’Or, this has been considered one of the greatest Chinese movies ever made.

Director and written by King Hu, A Touch of Zen was based on the classic Chinese story “Xianü” and comes from the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling.

Gu Sheng-tsai (Shih Chn) is a painter who has never really done much, nor has he wanted to, in his life. But when he meets Yang (Hsu Feng), a female fugitive scheduled for execution, he discovers that he can do more and joins her in the battle against Eunuch Wei and his army.

This movie is perhaps most famous for its sword fight in the bamboo forest sword fight. It lasts ten minutes on screen, but took twenty-five days to film. It was choreographed by Han Yingjie, a former Beijing opera actor and the action director of A Touch of Zen.

King Hu is the kind of creative that would spend a large part of this movie’s budget to build a village set and then he left it unused for nine months so it would be weathered. There are also no fights until an hour into the movie. This builds on the magic he created with Come Drink With Me and Dragon Gate Inn.

One example of how he was a different director lies in the aftermath of the ghost trap sequence. At first, Gu is overjoyed that he has become a hero and that his plan has led to the destruction of the evil forces. Yet as he walks through their bodies, he realizes that there is a human cost. These aren’t faceless video game characters, but instead actual people that he has killed. He begins to cry and then scream, as every footstep shows him one more person dead because of him.

What a gorgeous movie.

Want to see it for yourself?

You can watch A Touch of Zen on April 30 at 1:00 PM in Theater 1 at Metrograph and Subway Cinema in New York City. It’s part of the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Sword Fighting Heroes Edition from April 21-30, 2023!

Tickets are on sale right here!

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