“A Touch of Zen” is a movie as epic as they come. Then again, just about everything written since 2000 about “A Touch of Zen” (1971) focuses on two topics.
The first is its influence on the immensely loved “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) by Ang Lee.
People who are familiar with “Crouching Tiger” but not “A Touch of Zen” will be amazed not just by the beauty of “Zen,” but by how its distinct style seems to be lifted from the more recent film.
A remarkable fact, especially since this style seems reliant on special effects, even though 30 years separates the two films.
Flowing, natural motion is the order of the day. Characters don’t pump their legs and feet to run, they glide in the style of a ballet dancer, and leap effortlessly 10 feet high.
“Die Hard” (reviewed last week) focuses on blunt impact with crunching, explosive sounds. Movement in “A Touch of Zen” flows, with whistling, windy sounds emphasizing the smoothness.
Beyond the movement, “Crouching Tiger” and “Zen” share a philosophic quality associated with Eastern thought — but more on that later.
Much like seeing John Woo’s Hong Kong action classics, years after seeing the Quentin Tarantino’s films they inspire, seeing “Crouching Tiger” and then “A Touch of Zen” creates a dizzying effect. This could lower the perceived genius of director Lee in the viewer’s mind, but it helps in understanding and building respect. Rarely is genius built wholly from scratch, if ever.
The second focus of writings on “A Touch of Zen” is its “poetic” nature. This is mostly deemed to be a deep compliment. After all, poetry is the art said to reside most in the world of thought.
This points to the fact that just about all the characters are meditative, and many seem heavily influenced by the Zen Buddhism of the title.
That said, the movie also brings up some of the worse aspects of poetry: Its flourishes of beauty are weighted down by self-indulgence, its vague spiritualism is full of mumbo-jumbo, and there is overall a big lack of focus.
One gets the sense that many critics don’t like to criticize something that feels “spiritual.” To this reviewer, the movie would be better served with an hour cut from its nearly three.
“A Touch of Zen” if full of amazing scenes, and its influence can’t be questioned. But man, it could use an editor.
‘A Touch of Zen 侠女’ (1971)
• Where to see it: Anywhere. It is available on many popular streaming and torrent websites such as Youku.
• What to see: Perhaps the most epic of the wuxia or Chinese traditional martial arts films, 200-minute-long “A Touch of Zen” features dozens of characters and poetic scenes and themes. Produced in Taiwan, it has been rated No. 9 of the 100 greatest Chinese films by the Hong Kong Film Awards Association.