"Someone like Jean Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good Kung Fu film.” - Werner Herzog
In 1949, American mythologist Joseph Campbell published what would become one of the most important non-fiction books of the twentieth century, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Within its pages, Campbell introduced his theory of the existence of an archetypal hero and story found throughout world mythology. He argued that all of the myths throughout the world’s cultures share a similar fundamental structure, which Campbell named the monomyth. The monomyth can be summarized as such: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” From this central storyline, the world has derived countless variations which have defined their myths, legends, and ultimately their cultures.
But if you journey around the world, you will find that certain cultures have developed mythologies that are usually explicitly associated with them. Though these mythologies may contain similar themes, characters, and morals to other cultures, they are branded as belonging to one society. America has the Western, with its tales of cowboys and Indians, train robberies and stagecoaches, gunslingers and bandits, sheriffs and outlaws, black hats and white hats. Though the cowboy is not a uniquely American archetype (they are found throughout South America and Australia), the Western is a decisively American genre. In the film industry, even Westerns made in foreign countries like Italy are almost always set in the American West. The Western encapsulates the American experience to such a high degree that it has become an intrinsic part of the American identity. Westerns aren’t just stories of villains and heroes. Westerns are the stories of America itself.
There are several other distinct cultural mythologies that are married to one particular culture. Japan has the bushido tradition, filled with noble samurai who embody their nation’s spirit and traditions. Europe has chivalry, with tales of medieval knights, sorcerers, and dragons. And China…well, China has wuxia.
Wuxia is a distinctly Chinese cultural tradition. Whereas America has cowboys, Japan samurai, and Europe knights, China has martial artists. Taking their roots from as early as 300 BCE, wuxia has developed its own distinct tropes and archetypes. Wuxia heroes are martial artists who predominantly come from low social classes. These heroes are frequently committed to a moral code, usually influenced predominantly by Buddhism, and fight for the benefit of the poor and helpless. They are characterized as having several particular abilities, predominantly: mastery over martial arts and weapons, the capacity to move quickly and weightlessly over objects like water, trees, and walls as if they were flying, the use of “inner energy,” or “qi,” and the skill to kill, paralyze, or control opponents by attacking specific acupressure points. These are all intrinsic parts of the wuxia archetype.
As with other popular cultural traditions, wuxia eventually made the transition from written epics and operas to the cinema. The earliest wuxia films originated in the 1920s and featured such cinematic techniques as using trampolines and wires to assist in fight choreography and speeding up the camera to make the action appear more fluid and fast. As the decades went on, the wuxia genre evolved and passed through the hands of many of China’s greatest filmmakers. Chief among these was King Hu, the man who reinvented the genre in the late 1960s with the revolutionary Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Gate Inn (1967). Hu emphasized the fantasy elements and special effects popularized by classic wuxia films while portraying the graphic, realistic violence portrayed in the “new school” of wuxia. His films were embedded with Buddhist themes, ideas, and imagery. Of all of his films, popular and inspirational to filmmakers as they were, few were as thoughtful, exciting, and masterfully made as his 1971 three hour epic, A Touch of Zen.
A Touch of Zen told a massive story with a large cast of characters on a scale that was unheard of in wuxia cinema. The film centers of Ku, an amiable yet unmotivated scholar and painter who becomes involved in a massive plot of political intrigue and revenge. One morning he is approached by a mysterious stranger named Ouyang Nin who is searching the region for two people: the beautiful Yang Hui-Ching and her friend General Shih. It is later revealed that Yang’s father, an official, was killed by a corrupt eunuch named Wei when he discovered his plot to overthrow the government. As punishment, Wei had him tortured to death and then ordered the death of his entire family. Unbeknownst to Ouyang Nin is that both fugitives have taken up residence in a reputedly haunted abandoned fort next to Ku’s home. He quickly falls in love with the heavenly Yang and vows to help protect her.
The kind yet unambitious Ku.
Not that she needs much protecting. Yang is more than capable of taking care of herself. As a wuxia hero, she is highly skilled in martial arts, having been trained by Hui Yuan, the abbot of a local Buddhist monastery. Skilled as she may be, though, she doesn’t stand a chance against an army of Wei East Chamber guards, a group of masterful warriors. After the consummation of their love, Ku devises a plan to defeat the army looking for Yang and Shih. He enlists a group of locals to booby trap the fort after spreading rumors that it is filled with vengeful ghosts. When the army arrives, they are quickly dispatched by a series of traps and mechanical devices which kill most of them and scare off the survivors. However, after surveying the aftermath of his victory, he finds that Yang has left.
After a long period of searching, he finds Yang at Hui Yuan’s monastery, having given birth to Ku’s child and becoming a nun. However, this does not stop Wei, who sends another army led by the powerful Hsu Hsien-Chen. They assault Ku and his child, which results in Yang and Hui Yuan coming to their rescue. In the ensuing fight, Hsu is defeated and injured. However, in a last deceptive move, he tricks them into thinking that he is surrendering, only to attack at point-blank range, badly wounding both Hui Yuan and Yang. After Hsu is killed, it is revealed that Hui Yuan has been mortally wounded. Yet instead of blood, he bleeds liquid gold. He staggers to the top of a nearby hill where Ku and Yang watch him meditate with the sun forming a halo around his head. As the sun sets, it turns Hui Yuan into a stark silhouette. Pointing to the left, and therefore presumably to the West and the Western Pure Land, Hui Yuan breaks the cycle of rebirth and attains Buddhahood.
A Touch of Zen represents a consummation of masterful aesthetics, symbolism, and superior cinematic technique. It is more than just a simple martial arts film. It charts the spiritual development of its characters as they strive towards justice and, ultimately, enlightenment. The character of Ku is a perfect example. Ku is by his very nature an unusual wuxia character as he is not a practitioner of martial arts. Additionally, he is more of a spectator to the events of the film, sitting back and planning instead of directly fighting the enemy. In fact, the transformation of Ku from an unmotivated scholar to a master strategist invokes the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and complacency. The final battle between Hui Yuan and Hsu is highly abstract, utilizing bizarre cut-aways of animals and color negatives. It suggests a supernatural interpretation of the triumph of goodness and Buddhism over the forces of evil and chaos.
And of course, the fight scenes are superb. The film would influence such modern wuxia epics as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) where the martial artists break the laws of physics and gravity with every movement of their bodies. So masterful were the effects and choreography that A Touch of Zen won the Technical Grand Prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Chinese film in its history to win an award. It was even nominated for the Palme d’Or, but ultimately lost against the Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975).
As a film, A Touch of Zen is a beauty to look at, featuring fantastic cinematography heavy in landscapes and visual motifs. The story takes the best from Chinese history and wuxia traditions to create something bold, new, and vibrant. The central story of the battle of good versus evil, justice versus corruption, and knowledge versus ignorance appeals to the commonality between all peoples. And yet, it is a distinctively Chinese film. No…that isn’t the right way to describe it. A Touch of Zen is nothing less than a Chinese masterpiece.