Above: Gu’s first meeting with Yang
A Touch of Zen is considered one of King Hu’s cinematic masterpieces. It is noted as the inspiration for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and so I went into this film expecting something action packed and full of amazing scenery and fight sequences. But the film does not start out as expected at all. I spent the first hour feeling like the image above, slightly surprised and confused. I was expecting an action packed epic, instead I was given a story of a young scholar and his mother dealing with “ghosts”. However, the story was still engaging. Gu, a young scholar, is an interesting character and I enjoyed watching his calm behavior and confidence in the life he has chosen for himself. The conflict between him and his mother is quite interesting as well showing the tension between his mother, which is a battle between ambition and contentment.
What really struck me about the movie though was the lighting. A Touch of Zen has many scenes of exceptionally stark and low key lighting with little fill. You can see an example of this below, which is a small snippet from the trial scene.
This type of lighting creates serious atmosphere and I enjoy it when it is employed this way. It makes everything so brooding and foreboding. However it seems that Hu hasn’t fully mastered using this lighting as several scenes are so dark as to be unreadable, which you can see below when Gu is exploring the abandoned fort.
While lighting this dark does add a bit to the suspenseful feel of Gu’s exploration, it does also make it frustrating that we can’t see what’s going on. This is the first time I can remember having issues understanding what is on the screen and I wonder if perhaps this is Hu experimenting with indoor lighting. In his previous films many of the shots are outside and nicely light and very clear. Indeed even in A Touch of Zen we see similarly well lit outdoor shots. I wonder what the motivation was behind these decisions but I also find it interesting that the film fluctuates between these two extremes of bright scenes with lots of fill light and extremely dark scenes with minimal lights. Here’s a bright outdoor scene for comparison. The range of difference between values in this and the frame above is about as extreme as you can get.
Above: Stand off between the monks and the agents.