The cinematic tradition of Wuxia Pian, a genre of Chinese fiction centered on martial codes of retributive justice and righteousness, began in the silent era of the 1920s as adaptations of existing Chinese literature. Wuxia Pian is rooted in Chinese mythology that glamorizes the figure of the roaming knight-errant obligated to rectify corruption and enact retribution in the face of injustice, thematically congruent to the folkloric stories of American cowboys on the frontier or Japanese ronin in jidaigeki films. Like Western and Samurai cinema, Wuxia Pian can be understood as a set of aesthetic and structural elements that are capable of being deconstructed and reassembled to accommodate an ever-shifting cultural landscape and new ideologies within the collective consciousness.
The revival of wuxia films in the 1960s and 1970s was ushered in by visionary Chinese director King Hu (Hu Jinquan), who repackaged Wuxia themes with a modernized stylistic delivery and an updated arrangement of ideological principles to explore and interpret. Though Hu borrowed from the aesthetics of Chinese Opera, his most distinctive source of both visual and conceptual material comes from the polarities of Chan Buddhism, especially the (non)duality of the transcendental ‘suchness’ of reality that underlies a world of appearances and human subjectivity. Nondualism, as interpreted by Chan Buddhism, is an interconnectedness between the subject and the object, between the world one perceives and experiences and the absolute nature of all things that exist without having been perceived. The implication of nondualism is that the divine and total powers are inherently elements within and definitive of the mundane world we experience. The film that embodies this directorial characteristic of Hu’s is the Wuxia Pian epic A Touch of Zen (1971).
Outside of the narrative, the film’s cinematography provides an alternative interpretation to anthropocentric drama. Frames of the landscapes are perfectly arranged in visual harmony, presenting the natural order of the world as eternal, blissful, and sublime in its ineffable simplicity. The same frames become unbalanced by the bodies of the soldiers that pass through it, whose presence interfere in the divinity of the scene. Especially when thrust into scenes of combat, the wide landscapes and long shot durations are replaced with a flurry of rapid cuts in close proximity. Human violence makes the prior visual harmony incomprehensible, creating scenes that are fragmentary, disorienting, and disruptive. The discordance that occurs on a visual level resonates with the thematic tension between a whole and impartial cosmic balance and the volatility caused by militancy and aggression.
Narratively, the film follows a knight-errant female swordsman, Yang, who is pursued by the Eastern Depot, a secret police agency, who have been sent to execute her by imperial decree. Yang, alongside two generals who fled with her, combats the army sent after her with the help of a scholar who resides in the town in which Yang and her compatriots are hiding. Vastly outnumbered, the scholar suggests preying upon the psychical vulnerabilities of the soldiers by leading them into an abandoned fortress rumored to be haunted by vengeful ghosts. During a night ambush, the fugitives weaponize the fear of ghosts to scatter and dispatch the convoy of troops. The use of ghostly mannequins and other illusory tactics are so effective because of the soldiers’ belief in ghosts as supernatural witnesses of their crimes as killers—one soldier laments,“We should come back during the day. We’re soldiers! The blood we’ve shed…” The unraveling of institutional military power by appealing to the mythos of ghosts reveals an awareness that the worldly deeds are subordinated to a larger, immaterial cosmic order that supersedes any human apparatus of power.
A similar revelation dawns on the scholar, Gu, in the aftermath of the assault, who laughs with relish at the guerrilla tactics he had devised. Gu’s zeal in participating comes from a moral compulsion to thwart the control of a totalitarian regime, an abstract and speciously benign pursuit. It is only when he finds dozens of corpses strewn across the courtyard that the suffering and loss of human life caused by his actions dawn on him. His misery stems from the de-abstraction of his ideals of justice, contextualizing his actions in the absolute state of the world, rather than the narrow political stage he had been previously working within. Imperial squabbles and the opposition of civil values and martial conduct (which typically are the prevailing themes of traditional Wuxia Pian) are eclipsed by Hu’s interest in the universal liberation from suffering and overcoming the vanity of human ambition.
These scenes, along with the climactic battle at the film’s finale, do not seek to establish a dichotomy but remediate one: The relative reality of humanity and the ultimate reality of the transcendental are one in the same. This fundamental nondualism is the heart of A Touch of Zen; the essence of daily human action is inseparable from the infinite expanse of the natural world. By regarding human action as not exceptional from the wider macrocosm, conflict and violence for the sake of power lose their sacred status as epic endeavors and become futile and needless sources of suffering. In the words of Zen Master Hui-Yuan, who elegantly articulates Hu’s compassionate parable with brevity, “The sea of suffering is boundless. Arise and come ashore.”