A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, 1971)

The first Blu-Ray I’ve bought (not counting the one included for free with the DVD of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In) is Criterion’s release of a new restoration of King Hu’s classic wuxia pian, which is one of my all-time favorite films. My film database says that I’ve now watched this movie four times. The other three times were videotapes or DVDs of marginal quality. The highest visual quality DVD I watched was a Chinese disk that had no English subtitles.

There were a couple of things I noticed on my fourth viewing that I hadn’t noticed before. One was the moment of Miss Yang’s decision to bear Scholar Ku’s child. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect. She’s tending to Ku’s mother, who has a cold, and the mother is complaining, as she does constantly, that Ku will never get married and thus the family will die out. Heavy sigh. Cut to Miss Yang’s face as she makes a decision. I’m not sure whether the seduction scene is the very next scene or not. This film is very much about traditional Chinese values, and I think we’re supposed to admire Yang for her willingness to help the Ku family continue for another generation. She even bears him a boy! But one of the odd things about the movie is that she shows no maternal feelings whatsoever. Are we supposed to understand this as part of her attempt to break her attachments to the world, which is fundamentally a matter of religion, specifically Buddhism? Even when she leaves the monastery to protect Ku from the bad guys pursuing him, it’s cast more as a decision to protect him than to protect their child. Well, it’s possible that this is a continuity point that got lost in the mad rush to finish the film once the investors started getting impatient with how long it was taking.

The other thing I finally noticed is that when the evil Eastern Depot Chief Commander Xu duels with the Buddhist Abbott Hui, Hui eventually smacks him right on the third eye with his palm. There is a bloody mark left over the third eye. This is when Xu starts having the psychedelic visions of the Buddha that finish off the film. Does Hui’s blow open Xu’s third eye? This line of thought led me to think more about the “touch of Zen” in the story. Hu says that he himself was not a Buddhist, but he had a scholarly interest in Zen and wanted to incorporate some of those ideas in a wuxia film to try to deepen the meaning. In a short essay that’s included in the Criterion package, he talks about how he discovered that “translating the concept of Zen into cinematic terms posed a great many difficulties.” He doesn’t delve too deeply into what these difficulties were, but only notes that “Zen is something that can’t be explained but only experienced.” This would explain why the ending is so elliptical and ambiguous, but I began to wonder what connection between wuxia and Zen he had seen to begin with. The idea that Hui could release a transcendental vision through a violent blow seemed to my mind like a contradiction of the tenets of Buddhism.

Screencap from A Touch of Zen

What struck me is that the classic wuxia story is of the great swordsman who has grown tired of being embroiled in the conflicts of the jiang hu — the criminal underworld outside the normal rule of law where those who oppose corrupt Imperial politics are forced to reside. In the classic wuxia story, the weary warrior seeks to remove themselves from this world of conflict, but they always discover that there’s no escape. As in film noir (or Westerns like Shane or Unforgiven where the gunman tries to retire to a quiet life without killing), the past has its hooks in them, and it will come hunting. This basic fatalistic plot is very similar to the Buddhist attempt to escape the cycle of samsara that keeps us imprisoned in the world of illusion and impermanence. A Touch of Zen combines the two concepts/plots, in fact, when Miss Yang, who is a great swordswoman embroiled in conflict with the Eastern Depot (or imperial secret police — essentially the Gestapo) tries to remove herself from the cycle of vengeance and power struggles by retreating to a Buddhist monastery.

One of the things the movie doesn’t resolve is whether she is ultimately successful. The last we see is that she’s been pulled out of the monastery by the need to protect Ku (who also has their baby with him). But what about Abbott Hui? He warns Miss Yang that if he achieves nirvana, it will be up to her to protect Ku. This seems to imply that he feels he’s on the verge of achieving nirvana. The ending, which show him striking Buddha poses, seems to confirm that he has now done so. But again, isn’t it a contradiction that he has done so while embroiled in a violent conflict with an evil villain? Maybe that’s what King Hu was trying to acknowledge when he protested that he wasn’t really a Buddhist and that it’s impossible to convey Zen cinematically. Or maybe what he was trying to show was Hui escaping the cycle of struggle for power by achieving nirvana, so achieving what all great wuxia heroes want, but through leaving the entire world behind rather than through final victory with the sword. Nirvana is the ultimate retirement from the jiang hu. But is Miss Yang now stuck in the role of Ku’s (and their child’s) protector? The Chinese title of the movie, Xia nü, is translated as “The Chivalrous Maid.” She’s been that throughout, but now it comes to define her existence.

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