(One of several examples of King Hu’s use of motif in “A touch of Zen”)
The second half of “A Touch of Zen” contains a lot more wuxia action than the slower first half. There are several decent fights culminating in an FX heavy sequence where a villain jumps to his own death after receiving a special touch from the Abbot. This ending had inverted colors and grainy effects along with twisty camera moves. The villains demise from a touch on a chakra point by the Abbot seems to be reason for the name of the film. Either way I was quite pleased with the action in the second half. But, rather than examine it in detail I want to discuss something else, namely Hu’s use of motif.
You can see it in the title image for this post, as well as the header image on this very blog. There’s a great use of composition, lighting, costume and color design all at work to make the Abbot seem like a character that is entirely separate from the world around him.
The composition is spot on, it uses the rule of thirds for his place in the frame and also positions him in the same vertical alignment as the surrounding trees. The rays of light pouring out around him seem to bathe him in heavenly light while also helping to yellow a predominant position in the color palette. This is the same color the Abbot himself is wearing, alluding perhaps to the fact that he is at one with the natural world.
This motif is repeated several times throughout the film. Here it is again, with different positioning, but we get that same feeling and palette of color.
Each time the rays of light seem to be either in tune with the Abbot or, towards the end of the film, actually emanating from him. This choice of repeated exposure to a series of design decisions helps illuminate the character of the Abbot almost as much as his acting and role in the story.