Hsu Feng springs into action in A Touch of Zen

Five hundred words, give or take: that’s all I have to convince you to go and see Xia nü (A Touch of Zen) when it screens at Pacific Film Archive at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 3. It’s not a lot on which to base a decision, but trust me — even if you think I’ve given you the occasional bum steer in the past, you don’t want to miss this film.

Produced in Taiwan and released in 1971, A Touch of Zen is, quite simply, the greatest martial arts film of all time. Many think the crown belongs to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — understandable, as the film was received as such back in 2000 — and there are those who swear by 1974’s Enter the Dragon.

Those are good films, but they aren’t in the same league as director King Hu’s astonishing epic of love, intrigue, and deception in Ming-dynasty China. A Touch of Zen (its Chinese language title actually means ‘the swordswoman’, but never mind) has never been bettered, and is — like most epics — an essential big-screen experience. This is a very, very rare opportunity to see it in its intended format.

Gu (toothy Shih Chun) is a poor artist living rent-free with his mother (Zhang Bing-yu) in abandoned and decrepit Jing Lu Fort. Now in his thirties, he still hasn’t taken the civil service exam (a ticket to respectability), and still isn’t married. Mother is naturally disappointed: time is passing, and she’s losing hope that she’ll ever have any grandchildren.

The arrival of mysterious stranger Ouyang Nian (Tien Peng) presages change. While Gu draws his portrait, Ouyang quizzes the artist about Dr. Lu (Xue Han), an herbalist who moved into the area a month ago.

After Ouyang leaves his studio, the curious Gu follows him and sees the inquisitive stranger being shadowed by a trio of saffron clad Buddhist monks. Something is definitely up, and the plot thickens when beautiful potential spouse Yang (Hsu Feng, later the producer of Farewell My Concubine and other Chinese films) moves into an adjacent portion of the abandoned fort.

A Taste of Zen is three hours’ long, and includes far more plot than can (or should) be revealed in a brief article. Suffice to say there’s more to Ouyang, Lu, and Wang than appears on the surface, and that the anger of the insulted Grand Eunuch is about to affect all of them, as well as Gu and Shi, a master swordsman masquerading as a blind seer. Believe me, you do not want to mess with the Grand Eunuch.

Directed by wuxia pioneer King Hu over the course of three years, A Taste of Zen is a triumph on all counts. Shot in widescreen by Hua Hiu-ying, the film travels from spooky Jing Lu Fort to the mountainous remotes of Formosa, culminating in a spectacular finale that was apparently shot near Hong Kong’s Shing Mun Reservoir.

Wu Ta-chiang’s score is an upfront blend of traditional Chinese music and western tropes, with the presence of il maestro Ennio Morricone looming in the background. Indeed, if A Taste of Zen reflects the influence of any occidental filmmaker, that filmmaker would be Sergio Leone, whose spaghetti westerns were massively popular around the world – including Asia.

Withal, 500 (okay, 600) words aren’t remotely sufficient to summarize, describe, and praise this remarkable feature. If you’ve never seen it — or if you’ve only ever seen it on Criterion’s recent home video release — you know where you should be this coming Sunday evening. And come early: I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a sell-out.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...