A Touch of Zen is a 1971 Taiwanese wuxia film directed by King Hu. The film won significant critical acclaim and became the first Chinese language action film ever to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, claiming the Technical Grand Prize award.
Although filming began in 1969, A Touch of Zen was not completed until 1971.The original Taiwanese release was in two parts in 1970 and 1971 (filming was still ongoing when the first part was released) with the bamboo forest sequence that concludes Part 1 reprised at the beginning of Part 2; this version has a combined run time of 200 minutes. In November 1971 both parts of the film were combined into one for the Hong Kong market with a run time of 187 minutes. Its running time of over three hours makes it an unusually epic entry in the wuxia genre.
The story is largely seen through the eyes of Ku, who is a well-meaning but unambitious scholar and painter, with a tendency towards being clumsy and ineffectual. A stranger arrives in town wanting his portrait painted by Ku, but his real objective is to bring a female fugitive back to the city for execution on behalf of the East Chamber guards. The fugitive, Yang, is befriended by Ku and together they plot against the corrupt Eunuch Wei who wants to eradicate all trace of her family after her father attempts to warn the Emperor of the eunuch's corruption.
One of the unique aspects of the film is that Ku is a non-combatant all the way through the film and only becomes involved when he sleeps with Yang. Upon doing so, he is no longer the naïve bumbling innocent, but instead becomes confident and assertive, and when Yang's plight is revealed, he insists on being part of it – and even comes up with a fiendish "Ghost Trap" for the East Chamber guards. This is plan to use a supposedly haunted site to play tricks on the guards to make believe they are prey to the undead. In the aftermath, Ku walks through the carnage laughing at the ingenuity of his plan until the true cost of human life dawns on him.
After the battle, Ku is unable to find Yang, whom he is told has left him and does not want him to follow her. He tracks her down to the monastery of the saintly and powerful Abbot Hui Yuan, where she has given birth to a child by Ku and become a nun. She tells Ku that their destiny together has ended and gives Ku their child. Later, when Ku and the child are tracked down by Hsu Hsien-Chen, the evil commander of Eunuch Wei's army, Yang and Abbot Hui come to Ku's rescue. In the ensuing battle, Hsu is killed and Yang and Abbot Hui are badly injured (the latter bleeding golden blood). The film famously ends with the injured Yang staggering towards a silhouetted figure, presumably Abbot Hui, seen meditating with the setting sun forming a halo around his head, an image suggesting the Buddha and enlightenment.
Hsu Feng as Yang Hui-ching
Shih Jun as Ku Shen-chai
Pai Ying as General Shih
Roy Chiao as Abbot Hui Yuan
Tien Peng as Ouyang Nin
Cho Kin as Magistrate
Miao Tian as one of Mun Ta's advisors
Cheung Bing-yuk as Shen-chai's mother
Sit Hon as General Lu Ting-yen
Wang Shui as Mun Ta
Han Ying-chieh as Chief Commander Hsu Hsien-chen
Man Chung-san as Lu Chiang
Liu Chu as one of the Magistrate's men
Go Ming as one of the Magistrate's men
Liu Chik as Mun Ta's guard
Goo Liu-sek as Yang Lin
Cheung Wan-man as Tao Lung
Tse Chung-mau as royal messenger
To Wai-wo as Mun Ta's guard
Chen Shih-wei as Mun Ta's guard
Hao Li-jen as woodcutter
Sammo Hung as Commander Hsu's bodyguard
Ng Ming-choi as East Chamber guard
Billy Chan as East Chamber guard
Lam Ching-ying as East Chamber guard
Shan Mao as guard
Lung Fei as guard
Yeung Sai-gwan as monk
Kei Ho-chiu as monk
Poon Yiu-kwan as East Chamber guard
Cheung Yee-kwai as East Chamber guard
Lau Yau-bun as East Chamber guard
Chiu Hing-chun as soldier
Jimmy Lung as monk
Jackie Chan (uncredited stuntman)