Blu-ray Review: A TOUCH OF ZEN Comes to the Criterion Collection
Halfway through a year already crammed full of impressive releases (with no sign of slowing down... Dekalog for September!), The Criterion Collection has also taken advantage of the recent 4K remaster of King Hu's seminal A Touch of Zen, adding it to their collection on Blu-ray as spine #825.
Our own James Marsh had a good long look at the good long Zen -- at 3 hours, its running time was so prohibitive that distributors originally chopped it into two films -- a few months ago when it was released in a limited edition by Masters of Cinema - you can find his comments here, along with an extensive review of the film.
For those unfamiliar, though, A Touch of Zen follows a somewhat nerdy scholar who gets caught up in a life-and-death battle when he discovers that his new neighbours (occupying a haunted fort, no less) are actually fugitive warriors. It's impressively long, gets weirder and more awesome with each passing act beat, and the action sequences - besides being influential - remain formidable enough to hold their own against even today's antecedents.
The same 4K transfer of A Touch of Zen, funded entirely by the film's star, Hsu Feng, has been used for both the Criterion and Masters of Cinema Blu-rays. Unlike many of their recent cleanups, this is not a Criterion restoration that "looks like it was filmed yesterday." The distinct palette and grain of A Touch of Zen's original film stock is preserved intact, along with a good deal of camera-original damage that would be in poor taste to remove. In particular, the film was shot on some of the funkiest spherical lenses I've ever seen, which turn lateral pans into vertigo-inducing swirls of curving imagery, and which are - in several sequences - covered in gunk and soot so pronounced that it looks like someone sneezed on the camera immediately prior to filming.
The 47-minute documentary King Hu: 1932-1997, ported from the Masters of Cinema release, is a good primer on the director's whole career and approach, and is worth watching, particularly for the segment dealing with Hu's transition from his relationship with the Shaw Brothers Studio and towards making A Touch of Zen.
Bolstered by a David Bordwell essay in the slipcase (yes, he's the guy who wrote your film textbook), though, the Criterion's exclusive special features are where this release veers away from the Masters of Cinema edition, and where you'll want to make your purchasing choice if you haven't yet added Zen to your collection.
The most formidable exclusive extra on this release is a 34-minute video interview with Asian film scholar Tony Rayns. Rayns is vastly authoritative and knowledgeable, and also very dry... but the segment is impressive in how it frames the context for A Touch of Zen through multiple lenses. You'll either end up watching it immediately before or immediately after watching the feature itself, to fully absorb yourself in the exact moment A Touch of Zen was made.
As Rayns reports, Hu came to directing through a number of disciplines within the Chinese film industry - production designer, actor, writer - and brings those talents to bear on A Touch of Zen's production, where a talent shortage in the Taiwanese film industry meant that Hu was either performing or mentoring many of the production processes himself.
Rayns also charts the thematic progress of the film itself, as it widens from the mundane (the first half-hour focuses primarily on the day-to-day life of the scholar, including his work and the constant nagging from his mother) to the political and ultimately, to the spiritual.
For the aesthetic background for these ideas, Criterion also includes a new interview with Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is notable for its A Touch of Zen influences, and which Lee freely discusses here. He also relates Hu's interdisciplinary background to his approach to adapting the story for film, via opera, design, and a number of other art forms that can only be brought into unified focus through cinema.
Interviews with lead actors Hsu Feng and Shih Chun are also included, for some ground level recollections of making A Touch of Zen.