In 1971, former martial-arts director King Hu embarked on an epic reimagination of what the genre would look like. The three-hour A Touch of Zen was magical, weird, and breathtaking, often in the same scene. It was mostly ignored in its butchered release, except for some brief acclaim after finally getting a proper showing at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.
Since then, the film—which deeply influenced Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—has been mostly confined to obscurity. Thankfully, Janus Films gave it a proper release earlier this year, and now there’s also a beautiful new Criterion DVD edition.
My review is at PopMatters:
The film’s second third comes as a relief after the deliberate mannerisms and fussy perfectionism of the first third. Here, A Touch of Zen pivots from quiet pastoral with supernatural elements to more John Sturges Western. As villainous forces marshal against Yang and the two fugitive generals who came to her aid, Ku uses his study of classic works of strategy to plan their defense. The set-piece battle in which the small army of guards are lured into the supposedly haunted fort for a spectacular night-time ambush is a marvel of geometric precision and subterfuge…
Here’s the trailer: