The pictorial inclinations of King Hu’s rhapsodic camerawork in his monumental wuxia epic A Touch of Zen are his film’s most gilded gestures, but they are no mere poetic filigrees. Rather, Hu’s investment in the physical space of his film and the way that a camera and a mind can intake and reform space informs a conscious refusal on the director’s part to explore character drama in a vacuum. Without the crucible of bounding characters by the natural environments that often remain overlooked in the world of cinema, Hu suggests that person vs. person conflict may be tenuous and unresolvable; an understanding of the earth itself it necessary first. The illusory beauty in the frame often suggests a new perceptual realm beyond the typical threshold of human consciousness, as though we are peering into an ethereal plane of color and space that eludes humanity’s typical tasks and goals. Space is otherworldly here, but also tactile, exerting a magnetic pull on the characters who weather through frames as if attracted by the deception of an unknown specter in the air. Or as though they characters were being exhumed from their internal, civilized spaces – and metaphorically the confines of their internal minds – to confront the outside world, to explore new perspectives in a desperate quest for self-actualization.
In this bottomless beauty of a film, extensive charisma and conviction are inscribed in the act of walking, wandering wordlessly to intake the fascination of the outside world. His film is primed to reflect natural space as a dedicated realm that exerts motive over humans, bounding them in the frame, blocking people as they pass by, redirecting our attention to the omnipresence of the world rather than the volition of a person who walks through it. In the film’s most rapturous sequence, a bamboo-forest showdown, the conflict pits world, camera, and human in heated combat rather than the more typical emphasis on interpersonal quarrels. The forest is a constant presence, nearly a divine entity, rather than a mere backdrop to turmoil. Hu’s camera – pirouetting around space while also entangling itself in the murk of the forest, lithely gliding past bamboo poles while also stumbling with its fleet-feet to find itself impaled by the same poles – suggests the tempestuous dialectic of overcoming nature and falling prey to it.
Even suffused in such battle, Hu’s film doesn’t court excessive violence or bask in bloodshed. Arterial punctures and mortal wounds are not circumscribed to the fleshy human bodies within the frame, as they would be in any other film. Scars aren’t found on characters, but evoked in the slashing and piercing blows of the ever-motile camera itself, as if the camera is attacking as part of the environment and being attacked as one of the environment’s victims. The dancelike composure of the battleground is embodied in Hu’s ever-puncturing, ever-thrusting camera thrashing about with an alternately war-mongering, party-going, and prayer-like cadence and countenance. The world of the “fight” is almost abstracted into a flurry of motion and directionally-inclined imagery erecting a cross-hatch within the frame, with Hu’s sometimes jittery editing suggesting a similar inclination to disrupt and disfigure traditional notions of clarity in action cinema.
With daggers and weapons establishing the frame’s latitude in the bamboo fight, they are counterpoised by the even-more threatening impossibility of longitudinal bamboo poles and other structures both natural and artificial, totems to the physical realm’s authority over humanity, as well as marble blocks through which the characters can mold and manipulate their world to overcome conflagration and improve their relationship with the earth. Throughout, main character Gu (Shih Chun) grounds his well-being in an astute, almost omnivorous reflection upon the spaces around him, even if this means stalking his prey like a phantom because he has bothered to mobilize an awareness of the world around him beforehand. But the incompleteness of one’s quest to best nature, to establish untold perspectives on the world, is always within the film’s grasp as well. Roughly an hour in, Gu is on the hunt; expecting a vicious smackdown, we instead confront an even more vicious edit to the sight of Gu behind a tree branch, his head severed in the frame by the menace of nature he doesn’t yet see himself. With so many films valuing the subjectivity of their hero above all, Hu’s willingness to implicitly test and tease Gu with his frame, beckoning him to overcome his fallibility at the hands of nature and the camera’s perspective, is disarming.
The film always suggests at some level that the world is fighting back, that amidst humanity’s ostensible ability to overcome space, a meager flip of the visual perspective may re-entrench the earth and its virility nonetheless. The world’s capacity to jettison our heads from our bodies if we don’t continue to plant our heads firmly within an awareness of the earth is always a specter looming large in Hu’s eyes. The continued refrains to foreground objects slicing and dicing the physical completeness and composure of the human form in the frame reflects the film’s vision of zen-like control over the self as an understanding underwired by our need to remain present-minded and aware of the world around us. Essentially, if we don’t permeate the tendrils of our mind out into the disparate regions of the earth and latch our bodies into the ground, then that earth might just have us for dinner. Any physical victory would be Pyrrhic without the mental improvement that can only be afforded by mental-groundedness, lest the world gift you a tombstone, swallow you under six feet of its might, and ground you permanently.
Fittingly, the most primal, primed actions in A Touch of Zen are all nominally passive, taking the form watching and waiting, in-taking other characters, their actions, and their environment; the act of ingesting space becomes as intoxicating, unsettling, and active-minded as “overcoming” space, the jurisdiction of most more traditionally “active-bodied” films. Instead, Touch of Zen reconfigures the meaning of activity, infusing eyes with voluble power as prisms to unlatch and open up the world to us, a power denied to the clink and clank of swordplay in most other films; indeed, when the physical confrontation arises, it is only intensified because of the then-baked-in implicit conflict of characters who have expended the film sizing each other up.
Even as diegetic conflict is delayed then – even as fighting is absent in the film’s first hour, for instance – Hu’s subtle mise-en-scene instigates and insinuates conflict in its raw physicality, following characters on the search for others and visually sensualizing and heating up the implicit contest between the person, their desire, and the frame itself. But the camera is also always testing its limits; when Gu rushes head-first into a conflict early on it isn’t the other human that interrupts his quest but the blinding iridescence of the sun itself, with Gu’s perspective gifted to us as the film’s sun erodes our clarity as well. Similarly to Gu’s shift to more cautious planner, A Touch of Zen is a work that thrives on the act of learning how to visualize itself. It runs around with an inventive visual bedlam that the film also acknowledges could be its undoing if it doesn’t justify these visuals with philosophical impact and caution, thereby transforming camera pandemonium from sheer disruptive interlude into genuine building block for a new view of life. Rather than running amok over the world, the camera also flows with the world, following its shifts from darkness to light, from beauty to despair, in pursuit of the aspiration of understanding the world anew.
Hu’s camera is consistently intertwined with this project of producing new perspectives for us with almost kaleidoscopic abandon. New stylistic gestures invade the frame by the minute, much as disparate and variegated tones and moods do, but they are all conditioned by an intimate desire to experiment with the world and to unfasten the locks of limited, bolted perspectives. Even in stillness, the film tacitly suggests the limits of a centralized, one-character focus by casting each shot as a fount of movement in and out of the frame from all angles, establishing an open perspective that literally uncorks the world in the frame rather than closing off or circumscribing the conflict by yoking itself to only one character or set of movements.
Throughout, characters are contextualized within space, and even shots of them transgressing space in closeup or midshot – moving through space, overtaking the frame – are set against wider shots of the world still dwarfing them, still suggesting new, wider perspectives the characters haven’t yet come to terms with. The interplay of motion within the frame, motion of the frame, and edits between the frames form a tempestuous dialectic between human passivity to environment and human activity with, but not over, environment. Camera tricks, from split-frames to canted angles to refracting plays of light to sudden color shifts with the same object recast in a different light, secure new visions of the world around us, embodying Gu’s prodigious skill to scan external space, unlock the world, and re-energize it.The ultimate crux of the plot – Gu’s attempts to reconfigure and weaponize the space around him by booby trapping a supposedly haunted mansion to violate a corrupt regime – reflects his intimate application of passivity, of summoning his culture’s assumptions about this building and assiduously crafting a plan by morphing those assumptions and the spaces that girder them to his needs.
The world, a den of snakes for people who walk in egotistical blindness, morphs into an avenging spirit and a primordial limbo for those who casually deploy the deception suspended in the very air of the earth; the light that blinded Gu in the early chase eventually becomes his weapon when he learns to skulk around in darkness and deploy light in each parsimonious flash of his blade. Of course, Gu’s deliberate planning would be for naught without his acquaintance Yang’s (Hsu Feng) hustle and bustle to always act, with the film visualizing this dialectic in its simultaneous deployment of a leisurely meditative pace stranded in cavernous contemplation, on one hand, and a boundless enthusiasm and refusal to circumscribe itself to docility on the other. Even when the film rests on shots of the world functioning on its own terms, the camera hurtles, moving at a pace of composite mature stillness and crazed runaway ambition. Balance lies within, but the devouring principle is one of visual, tonal, and mental asymmetry and the drive to disrupt the world visually and physically even as you establish your place within it.
Which is a fitting, even indispensable corollary to the film’s philosophy, with Hu and cinematographer Hua Huiying enthusiastically imbuing Hu’s visual world itself with the philosophy of reposing oneself in one’s physical realm and then relying on this mental energy as a catalyst for bending the world to your will. Ultimately, A Touch of Zen is an ode to new perspectives conditioned by but capable of overreaching beyond one’s physical environment; the camera, like the characters, investigates tangible, corporeal space and restructures the contours of the world so as to utilize nature not to bombastically or egotistically overcome it but to understand it and thus repurpose it. The tactile nature of the world itself becomes a wellspring of possibility that only those who bother to listen to the swaying of the grass and intake the tortured contours of the rock around them can access. Something feels so spiritual and transcendent here as to occupy a role almost below the sensory threshold. But from the haunted, fetid decay of gloomy chiaroscuro to the resplendent divinity of verdant lushness, from camera pan to ricocheting zoom, from flutters of horror to flickering comic interludes, Hu’s film suggests a restless desire to constantly refresh and rekindle itself in an explicitly perceptual way as a divining, zen-like governing principle of life itself.
Digressions become part of the film’s ethereal flow and its spiritual guiding light, with swivels into basking in nature and swerves into new protagonists all patches in the film’s quilting, avenues for it to shift arterial highways by the minute, refresh itself with a new focal point as a suggestion of the sublimity of eschewing any one specific biome or bounded perspective in the world. Hu’s work bounces, skips, and hops physically – there’s never a breather when Hu’s camera is on the prowl – and mentally – the film’s re-identifies itself every minute so as to ignite the passions of a world of endless possibility for a camera sufficiently willing to throw the confines of a bordered perspective into disarray. The film’s taste, its flavor, is not only embodied within the frame but curiously unbounded by it.