A Touch of Zen Review

China, at the time of the Ming Dynasty. In a small provincial town, a young scholar Ku (Shih Chun) hears noises from the supposedly abandoned and haunted Ching Lu Fort. He finds living there a young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), who is fleeing her father’s enemies…

That’s the beginning of King Hu’s epic A Touch of Zen. This is a film which starts slowly, on a small scale, as a ghost story with a touch of romantic comedy. As the story picks up pace, it increases in scope and complexity, bringing in elements of political thriller, Zen Buddhist parable, samurai epic…not to mention some quite breathtaking martial arts fight scenes. Its influence has been huge: on the many medieval-set martial-arts epics made in Hong Kong, on the “wire-fu” subgenre (though here the leaps and bounds are – just about – within the limits of human possibility). Without this film, it’s doubtful there would have been a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film steeped in a local cinematic tradition but accessible to outsiders though its use of Western visual language.

I first saw A Touch of Zen in 1983 on television, in the early days of Channel 4. Although the film was panned and scanned and broken up with commercial breaks, it kept me watching for all three hours, until past midnight. Although the basic plotline is easy enough to follow, some of the finer details may be obscure to Westerners, or at least those who aren’t Zen Buddhists and/or genre aficionados.

The film is anchored by engaging and athletic performances from the leads, and nimble direction from Hu. You can sense he’s trying out several things here: several notable uses of the zoom lens, a split-screen sequence, and some shots in the finale printed in negative. But what’s most important is that it works, and three hours fly by.

Optimum’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The picture is in the correct 2.35:1 ratio, but is not anamorphic. The picture is shifted upwards slightly in its 4:3 letterbox, making for a thicker black bar at the bottom of the picture. I didn’t test this DVD on a widescreen TV set so can’t comment if this causes difficulties with zooming the picture, making the subtitles liable to be cut off. As for the picture itself, it looks soft and faded. As all copies of this film I’ve seen have looked like that (I compared this DVD with a taped-off-digital-TV copy), I can’t say if this is a deliberate look achieved by King Hu and his crew, or the result of the original materials fading over more than three decades. As there are places where the colours are more vibrant, I suspect the former. There are quite a few scratches, and darker scenes are poor in shadow detail and quite heavily artefacted – for example, the opening shot of a spider in its web. The result is certainly not unwatchable, but it would seem that A Touch of Zen is overdue for a fullscale digital restoration. The picture seems a little squeezed towards the extreme edges of the frame, though (as again, all versions I’ve seen are like that), this may be down to distortion caused by the anamorphic lenses used to shoot the film. This is probably more noticeable because Hu tends to stick to the “rule of thirds” when composing his shots: that is, the theory that it’s better to place your principal object a third of the way from the left or right of the frame (or both), instead of dead centre.

In Optimum's defence, they have said that an anamorphic transfer wasn't possible due to the way the master was subtitled, and this is the best version available.

The sound is mono, as has always been the case with this film. The soundtrack is tinny, and more towards the treble end of its dynamic range. We should bear in mind that A Touch of Zen was recorded using less-than-state-of-the-art equipment by today’s standards. I don’t think a 5.1 remix would be desirable, if it were possible, but no doubt someone will try one day!

There are sixteen chapter stops which, with an average duration of over ten minutes, is hardly adequate.

The remaining extras are four pages of text notes by King Hu, which explain some of the Zen Buddhist concepts in the script. The biographies are really just filmographies, provided for Hu, Hang Ying Chieh, Poon Yiu Kwan, Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Tin Peng, Roy Chiao, Sit Hon and Sammo Hung. Apart from the film titles, the variant Mandarin and Cantonese forms of their names are given.

All that remains are trailers for other Optimum DVD releases: The Wages of Fear (2:35), Breathless (1:53) and The Devil’s Backbone (1:23). The latter is in non-anamorphic 1.85:1, the first two full-screen.

Given this film’s considerable stature and influence, there’s a strong case for digital restoration and a special-edition release. A commentary from a Bey Logan or equivalent would go some way to explaining some of the more obscure parts of the film. (I won’t pretend I fully understood the ending.) That would be my ideal DVD release of A Touch of Zen. Unfortunately Optimum’s release isn’t it.

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