Indisputably the Sentimental Education of Mao-era wuxia [Chinese swordplay] epics, King Hu’s never-forgotten 1971 landmark was the first wallop of Chinese genre mayhem many Westerners ever saw, and it won a prize at Cannes.
Hu didn’t invent wuxia hijinks here (he did that earlier with Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn), but the trampolining brio at work was the hi-test in the engine of the Hong Kong assault of the ‘80s and ‘90s, not to mention Crouching Tiger and its digitally-assisted bamboo-grove battle…Still, it’s not a breathless or economical film; the old-school yarn and serene action editing can be, at such length, almost meditative. Settle in, feel your breathing, and get saturated.
Stephen Teo in A Touch of Zen, his BFI Classics monograph:
As a result of [A Touch of Zen‘s] commercial failure, its status through the year’s of Hu’s life was essentially relegated to that of a film maudit, despite the critical acclaim it accumulated. Hu himself seemed cursed by his achievement, and he would not make another film of its dimensions and depth. A Touch of Zen was really the last studio film that Hu made as he reached the peak of his career–his subsequent films in the 1970s were made independently for his own production company. The film therefore marks the culminating experience in Hu’s career not only because he could never recover the same mental energy in making his subsequent films but also the same studio conditions that allowed him the means to display his talent. A Touch of Zen is the Citizen Kane of the Chinese cinema: a film exemplifying the wondrous display of auteurial showmanship backed up by a studio which encouraged and tolerated the excesses of talent. Like Citizen Kane, A Touch of Zen is a one-of-a-kind experience imbued with a certain Messianic fervor that retains the ability of seeming fresh and urgent through time.
Teo has also written up a feature-length career overivew of Hu for the Great Directors department at Senses of Cinema.
David Bordwell in “Richness Through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse,” Poetics of Cinema:
Visual design was very important to Hu; he drew every shot in advance and supplied the cast and crew with photocopies. Declaring himself ignorant of the martial arts (“Kung Fu, Shaolin tales–I don’t understand anything about that”), he derived his films’ combat techniques from Beijing Opera and compared his fight scenes to dances. He lavished attention on his set pieces, spending 25 days shooting the confrontation in the bamboo forest in A Touch of Zen. Whatever his other preoccupations, Hu is an unabashed aesthete, and an aesthetic approach to his style seems natural.
Just as naturally, the most inviting objects of stylistic inquity are his magnificent fight scenes. True, Hu might discourage critics from concentrating wholly on them…Undeniably, though, King Hu’s continuing renown derives largely from his superb tratment of physical action in his Hong Kong and Taiwanese films of the 1960s and 1970s. Whatever his other virtues, he will be remembered as a director or running, jumping and ferocious combat.
The climactic and oft-imitated bamboo-forest fight sequence in A Touch of Zen:
Kevin B Lee for Reverse Shot:
It is universally agreed that with his 1960s films Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn, King Hu was the first director to elevate the martial arts genre to a level of artistry. Hu’s innovations lay in a heightened sense of atmosphere and a deliberate delaying of action scenes to divert the audience from seeking gratification in combat to enter a more contemplative mode of viewing. At three-and-a-half hours, A Touch of Zen was the most ambitious film of Hu’s career, winning a special technical prize at the Cannes Film Festival but faring poorly upon its commercial release. It remains Hu’s artistic pinnacle, his lasting attempt to enact the phenomenology of Zen Buddhism in cinematic terms while reinventing the martial arts film in the process. […]
[Hu] distills the martial arts genre to its own essence of moments, gestures, and sensations. It’s in this aesthetic inquiry that his editing plays a critical role. There are too many great cuts throughout A Touch of Zen to mention, and many of them play in quick succession during Hu’s fight scenes: a flurry of disjunctive cuts where trees, swords and wisps of human bodies alternate in split second shots, the bare minimum of time for them to register to the human eye. Ang Lee claims that A Touch of Zen inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (most notably in the bamboo forest duel, which recalls a bamboo forest fight in Hu’s film for its setting and little else), but his sweeping, wide-angle long takes are the antithesis of Hu’s furiously edited fights. This is not to say that Hu is the progenitor of today’s noisy, overly edited action films that substitute a cacophony of noise and indistinguishable flashes for coherent staging (the same contemporary malaise in action filmmaking that Ang Lee sought to redress). Hu counterbalances his action with extended moments of stasis, where combatants stare at each other intently, anticipating each other’s moves while shoring up their own resolve.
And this passage on a single edit:
For years this single cut has held in my mind as a rebuttal to all of the expensive blockbusters that rely on costly explosions, explicit crashes or elaborate computer-generated effects to get a rise from the viewer, when something as simple as a perfectly placed jump cut can startle just as effectively. With all of the technology at their disposal, today’s filmmakers seem to overlook the power of editing. When employed in an action movie, editing is used to make a big hullaballoo of violence even bigger and more violent. What’s missing is the thoughtfulness and contemplation evident in this brief moment.