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King Hu's A Touch of Zen

King Hu's A Touch of Zen

Stephen Teo
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 196
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  • Book Info
    King Hu's A Touch of Zen
    Book Description:

    A Touch of Zen is one of the first Chinese-language films to gain recognition in an international film festival (the Grand Prix at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival), creating the generic mould for the "crossover" success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000. The film has achieved a cult status over the years but little has been written about it. This first book-length study of the classic martial arts film therefore redresses its critical neglect, and explores its multi-leveled dimensions and mysteries. One of the central features of the film is the enigmatic knight-lady (xia nü) whose quest for revenge leads her to cross paths with a poor scholar whose interest in military strategy seals their alliance. Teo discusses the psychological manifestations and implications of this relationship and concludes that the film's continuing relevance lies in its portrait of sexuality and the feminist desires of the heroine. Teo also analyzes the film's form as an action piece and the director's preoccupation with Zen as a creative inspiration and as a subject in its own right. As such, he argues that the film is a highly unconventional and idiosyncratic work which attempts to transcend its own genre and reach the heights of universal transcendence. Teo grounds his study in both Western and Chinese literary sources, providing a broad and comprehensive treatise based on the film's narrative concepts and symbols.

    eISBN: 978-988-8052-48-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Ackbar Abbas and Wimal Dissanayake
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    A Touch of Zen is one of the essential films of the Chinese-language cinema. It achieved a “double first”: it was the first Chinese-language film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1975, and the first wuxia (martial chivalry) film to do so at an international film festival. This success at the Cannes Film Festival signaled the rise of Chinese films as an aesthetic force in world cinema, demonstrating how Chinese filmmakers could make a world-class film in their own style and in a distinctively Chinese genre. Though principally shot in Taiwan for a Taiwan-based production company,...

  6. 2 Pu Songling and the Spider
    (pp. 17-28)

    In chapter 1, I have given a sense of the unprecedented scale on which the production of A Touch of Zen was undertaken, and the extraordinary advantages that Hu enjoyed under Union which he exploited to make his mark as a free, creative artist. The large scale may seem surprising when one considers that the film was based on nothing more than a short story taken from Pu Songling’s anthology Liaozhai zhiyi. The story is Xia Nü‚ rendered as The Magnanimous Girl in Herbert Giles’s translation.

    Liaozhai zhiyi was published in its earliest form in 1679. Pu Songling (1640–1715)...

  7. 3 Ghosts and the Desire to See
    (pp. 29-50)

    A Touch of Zen begins with the proposition that the Chinese fort where the bulk of the story takes place is a haunted place and that the xia nü may be a ghost. This afforded Hu the means to delve into questions of superstition and belief in the supernatural. The director was a keen student of the genre known in Chinese as shenguai (meaning gods and spirits), and he was not averse to letting loose his imagination in such a genre, as seen in his later film Legend of the Mountain (1979). While A Touch of Zen is generally recognized...

  8. 4 Seduction and Politics, Fight and Flight
    (pp. 51-76)

    In this chapter, we pick up on the scene of Yang Huizhen’s seduction of Gu Shengzhai which takes place under moonlight in a water pavilion, part of the grounds of the “haunted” general’s mansion. To entice him there, Yang had dressed herself as a male. Now, she is properly dressed as a woman, and playing the qin‚ singing a song set to the words of a Li Bai poem, Yuexia duzhuo (Drinking Alone under the Moon):

    A jug of wine amidst the flowers;

    Drinking alone, with no friend near.

    Raising my cup, I beckon the bright moon;

    My shadow included,...

  9. 5 The Battle of the Haunted Mansion
    (pp. 77-90)

    Part 2 of A Touch of Zen contains the title Lingshan jianying (literally, Sword’s Shadow on the Divine Mountain)¹, an indication of Hu’s Zen theme. Depending on one’s point of view, Part 2 is either flawed by this need to expound on the Zen theme, or that, as David Bordwell writes, it “expands further, carrying its fighters through forests and mountains to a seascape transformed into a vista of Buddhist transcendence.”² Part 2 essentially departs from the original source in Liaozhai after the sequence which I will call the “Battle of the Haunted Mansion”. Following this battle, Yang Huizhen disappears,...

  10. 6 The Zen Finale
    (pp. 91-106)

    In the aftermath of the Battle of the Haunted Mansion, the film moves on to its fantastic-marvelous phase. At the end of the last chapter, I pointed out that Yang Huizhen had fulfilled her central mission as the xia nü, by taking revenge on the man who had killed her father. Now the final section of the film goes on to show her fulfillment of her other mission — to continue the Gu family line by giving birth to Gu’s baby (in this mission, Yang plays the sexual matriarchal role that can be summed up in the psychoanalytical conceit of spectral...

  11. 7 Conclusion
    (pp. 107-120)

    I began by suggesting that A Touch of Zen is a subversive work because of its feminist sensibility and sexual ambiguity. But by delivering a fantastic-marvelous conclusion that exposes us to the supernatural, the film appears to override the earthly human concerns of our sexual roles and directs us to transcend them. But if the message of the Zen conclusion is, as Vicki Ooi suggests, that through the supernatural contents of the psychic process, we remain entangled with worldly matters until we have fulfilled our pre-given roles as a “fundamental law of karmic birth”,¹ then far from diluting the film’s...

  12. Appendix 1 Synopsis of Xia Nü in Liaozhai Zhiyi
    (pp. 121-124)
  13. Appendix 2 Narrative and Thematic Chart
    (pp. 125-132)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 133-158)
  15. Credits
    (pp. 159-162)
  16. Biography and Filmography
    (pp. 163-166)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 167-172)
  18. [Index]
    (pp. 173-179)