Radiantly restored in 4K, King Hu’s superlative 1971 wuxia (literally “martial hero,” a frequently misunderstood staple of Chinese storytelling typically defined by chivalrous lower-class men fighting oppression or misdeeds) is an obvious influence on The Matrix, Kill Bill, The Assassin, and especially Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Curiously structured to merge supernatural suspense with political thrills and metaphysical action (notions of violence battling the principles of Zen Buddhism itself), this three-hour Taiwanese opus endures due to its astonishing visuals, sprightly movement, progressive gender dynamics, and spiritual heft.
During the fourteenth century, passive village scholar and portrait artist Gu (Shi Jun) befriends and falls for his mysterious neighbor Yang (Hsu Feng), an exiled noblewoman and alpha-female warrior hiding out from a corrupt Ming Dynasty eunuch. Teamed up with two more renegades disguised as an herbalist and a blind fortune-teller, Gu (who proves well versed as an art-of-war strategist) is determined to protect Yang, though she clearly doesn’t need a man’s help once the swords start clanging an hour in.
Best remembered for its climactic, gravity-defying skirmish in a bamboo forest — which, as an analog precursor to wire-fu and modern-day CGI, utilizes hidden trampolines and nimble editing to stage its bloody ballet — A Touch of Zen was more arthouse than kung fu cinema had seen by that time and became the first mainland Chinese film to win an award at Cannes.
A Touch of Zen
Written and directed by King Hu
Opens April 22, Film Forum