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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 2.35:1 Widescreen
  • Mandarin PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Documentary from 2012 about director King Hu
  • New interviews with actors Hsu Feng and Shih Chun
  • New interview with filmmaker Ang Lee
  • New interview with film scholar Tony Rayns
  • Trailer
  • Insert featuring an essay by film scholar David Bordwell and notes by King Hu from a 1975 Cannes Film Festival press kit

A Touch of Zen

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: King Hu
1971 | 180 Minutes | Licensor: The Taiwan Film Institute

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #825
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: July 19, 2016
Review Date: July 19, 2016

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SYNOPSIS

ďVisionaryĒ barely begins to describe this masterpiece of Chinese cinema and martial arts moviemaking. A Touch of Zen by King Hu depicts the journey of Yang (Hsu Feng), a fugitive noblewoman who seeks refuge in a remote, and allegedly haunted, village. The sanctuary she finds with a shy scholar and two aides in disguise is shattered when a nefarious swordsman uncovers her identity, pitting the four against legions of blade-wielding opponents. At once a wuxia film, the tale of a spiritual quest, and a study in human nature, A Touch of Zen is an unparalleled work in Huís formidable career and an epic of the highest order, characterized by breathtaking action choreography, stunning widescreen landscapes, and innovative editing.


PICTURE

The Criterion Collection presents King Huís A Touch of Zen on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Presented on a dual-layer disc, the new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration of the film, which was funded entirely by the filmís star, Hsu Feng. The scan was taken from the original 35mm camera negative.

This is a hard one to judge because ultimately I suspect a lot of the issues present are just inherent in the source, a condition of the shoot and/or the equipment, the film stock used, and limitations because of lack of certain materials. Some of the issues are just byproducts of filming. Dirt can be seen on the lens in a number of scenes, which appear as foggy black bits throughout a scene and hang around even if the camera movies. Itís not always there, but there are a number of scenes where it is noticeable. Also, the anamorphic lenses used for the film can present distortions on the edges of the screen where the shape of objects will enlarge or contract depending on their placement in the frame as the camera pans. This is related to the equipment used for filming, nothing to do with the transfer itself, but your attention will likely be called to it.

Colours also lean on the yellow side of things. This could be how it was intended to look, though the notes on the restoration that accompany this release admit that there was no colour reference available, and instead they referenced a recent restoration of Dragon Inn (which did have a reference) to figure out the colours. Under those circumstances itís one of those ďdamned if you do, damned if you donítĒ things, but I still found saturation pleasing, and certain colours, like reds and oranges, look really rich.

Another thing that can throw the image off are black levels. Crushing is a bit of a problem and darker sequences, like the extended nighttime fight scene in the ďhauntedĒ fort, are very hard to see. Shadow details are non-existent and there just seems to be a grayish-black layer over the whole scene. Itís hard to tell if this is an issue with the restoration or possibly a problem with the source materials or film stock. Brighter scenes look really good, though, and black levels look well balanced, so in Iím leaning towards it maybe being an issue with the film in low lit scenes.

So there are limitations that can be primarily linked to source materials, but how does the digital presentation stand up you ask? Very well! There is admittedly a lot of material on this disc and I do sort of wish Criterion looked at spreading the release over two discs, but the film still comes out looking good. Compression is nicely handled and no problems with pixilation or blockiness ever stood out. The image is also smooth and very filmic overall, and this was very pleasant to see.

The restoration work, outside of the problems that couldnít be helped, has also been very thorough. I donít recall any major print blemishes or marks showing up. As it is, despite those issues I doubt could have been helped, I was very happy with what was presented here. It moves nicely and again looks very filmic.

7/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The audio, presented here in lossless PCM 1.0 mono, is pretty weak, and again Iíll put it down to source materials. Though I loved the sound effects of clanging metal and whooshing leaps during fight scenes, the track is incredibly flat. Music and voices lack range and can come off a bit tinny and distorted. Itís still easy to hear, but its age is evident. At the very least, other than an audible hiss in places, I didnít notice any significant damage like clicks, pops, or drops. As to the general weakness of the sound Iím sure it has more to do with the materials and recording equipment than the transfer. This is probably as good as it will get.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion packs on a few supplements starting with a new interview featuring actor Hsu Feng, who plays Yang in the film and also personally financed the restoration of the film. For 14-minutes Feng recalls working on Dragon Inn before being cast by Hu again in A Touch of Zen, which, with the bigger role and the longer shooting schedule, sounds to have been the more intense and grueling of the two. She talks about her co-stars and what she learned from them, and also talks about the training and the action scenes (her head was knicked during one scene, the shot actually used in the film). She also talks about her disappointment in how the film was initially received, further annoyed by the fact it was international audiences that ultimately noticed it.

Paired with her is a separate interview with actor Shih Chun, who speaks 17-minutes about the film. Interestingly Chun, a former pharmacist, was randomly discovered by Hu and cast in Dragon Inn, with no prior acting experience. Other features delve deeper into this, but due to the limitations of the current Taiwanese production crew (who had very little filmmaking experience) Hu depended on just about everyone to help in the production, including building the sets, and Chun helped in this regard as well. He also covers the various things he had to learn (from martial arts to traditional Chinese painting) but spends a good amount of time talking about Hu and the preparation the director put into this film.

Both interviewees are very passionate about the film and eager to share their stories offering a first-hand perspective on the working method of the filmmaker. Both are excellent and worth viewing.

Criterion then includes the 2012 documentary King Hu: 1932-1997, a 48-minute feature on the director (naturally!) Through various interviews we get a general overview that doesnít feel entirely intimate, almost like weíre still being kept at a distance, but still offers up enough details about the filmmaker for the uninitiated. It covers his early days as an actor and how he worked his way into the director position, working for Shaw Brothers. He eventually split from there after some difficulties, moving to Taiwan and going out on his own making Dragon Inn, which would become a huge hit. It was then that he was able to get the money for A Touch of Zen, which amusingly was originally scheduled for a 6 month shoot, only to take 2 years. Itís breezily cut together and still engaging, but itís not as in-depth as I would have hoper. Itís at least aided by some some great personal reflections from participants (particularly former child actor Wu Ming-cai).

Director Ang Lee next shows up to talk about the impact of the film, giving a brief history of Taiwanese cinema up to that point (mostly propaganda and/or simple entertainment films) and how Huís work changed that, showing films could be art. He talks about the action sequences, how the bamboo forest fight scene in particular influenced a similar fight scene in his 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and how itís imagery has stayed with him.

Leeís contribution is a nice appreciation of the film, with a little contextualization to the time period, but scholar Tony Rayns goes into a greater amount of detail in his 34-minute interview. Rayns thoroughly covers (even moreso than the included documentary) Huís films and his other work in the industry, up through his eventual move out on his own. After this he focuses primarily on A Touch of Zen as one would expect. He talks about the production and then talks about the film itself, admiring its rather laid back opening, and how the film goes from fairly realistic historical film and then slowly goes into the metaphysical. While also offering more historical context for the time the film was made and the time depicted in the film, he also explains the rather complicated release of the film, which was first split into two films but the re-edited multiple times into a single film, until its current state which was premiered at Cannes. Rayns, who really hit one out of the park with his commentary for A Brighter Summer Day, really packs in a lot of material here and it will prove invaluable for newcomers to the film and Hu.

Criterion then includes the filmís re-release trailer and then a poster insert. The insert features an essay by David Bordwell, covering the genre elements and twists found in the film. But much more valuable are notes on the production by Hu himself, covering the production and the editing process that followed. There are also notes by him offering more information about the ďEastern Depot,Ē the villains in this film and Dragon Inn, and how both films were born as a counterpoint to the James Bond films. Though the release is full of good stuff, this may have been my favourite feature.

In the end Criterion has nicely packed this editions with some terrific, engaging content I feel will be invaluable to newcomers and longtime fans.

8/10

CLOSING

I think some source and shooting issues do limit the image, but overall it still looks very good. Itís very clean, moves smoothly, and looks like a film. With the added bonus of some great contextualizing supplements, the release is an easy recommendation.


View packaging for this Blu-ray

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