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Film / A Touch of Zen

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A Touch of Zen is a 1971 Taiwanese wuxia film directed by King Hu. It is a loose adaptation of the tale The Magnanimous Girl (in Chinese Xia Nü) from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1740).

Gu is a poor man of letters. One day, a stranger, Ouyang Nian, asks him to draw his portrait. When he comes back home, he hears a strange noise coming from the deserted palace next to his house. Finally, he finds out that Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng) lives there and Ouyang Nian is sent by the corrupt Eunuch Wei to chase her. After sleeping with Yang, Gu decides to join her and her friend to fight Ouyang Nian.


A Touch of Zen provides examples of:

  • Animal Motifs: Spiders show up several times, notably in the opening scene.
  • Bare-Fisted Monk: Abbot Hui-yuan fights without weapon. His monk followers only use ropes.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gu, Yang Hui-zhen and their child are safe so far and the people Eunuch Wei sent to chase them are dead, but Eunuch Wei remains in power, General Shi is dead, and Abbot Hui-yuan is badly injured (it is suggested he reaches nirvana).
  • Blind Seer: Subverted. General Shi prentends to be blind and in the beginning he makes the horoscope of Gu. Actually, he is not blind and he is not able to predict the future.
  • Bookworm: Gu is a man of letters. He becomes The Strategist because he read about the art of war.
  • But I Read a Book About It: Gu has no experience of battles, but he read books about the art of war, so he thinks he can help Yang and her friends.
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  • Cat Scare: When he explores the deserted palace for the first time, Gu is scared by mothes flying away.
  • Cool Sword: Ouyang Nian has a flexible sword that can be hidden in his belt.
  • Due to the Dead: After the battle in the deserted palace, Abbot Hui-yuan and his monks show up to bury the dead.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: The Big Bad is the corrupt eunuch Wei, who killed Yang Hui-zhen's father and wants to kill her.
  • Evil Chancellor: The eunuch Wei is corrupted. He decided to kill Yang Hui-zhen's family because her father wanted to denounce him to the Emperor.
  • The Film of the Book: The film is an adaptation of a tale from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1740).
  • Flashback: Yang Hui-zhen's backstory is told through a flashback.
  • I Want Grandkids: Gu's mother wants him to find a wife to have children.
  • Haunted House: Subverted. Gu believes the deserted palace is haunted. It is not. The noise he heard was made by Yang. Later, the soldiers believe the palace is haunted because of the rumours spread by Gu's mother.
  • Historical Domain Character: The Eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627) and Yang Lian (Yang Hui-zhen's father).
  • Imperial China: The story is set in Ming China.
  • I Surrender, Suckers: Xu Xian-chun and his guards after a first encounter with Abbot Hui-yuan pretend to surrender and ask him to teach them. This is a trick to try to kill Hui-yuan.
  • Karma Houdini: Eunuch Wei remains in power and is not punished by the end of the film.
  • Lady of War: Yang Hui-zhen, who is a talented fighter and the daughter of a general. Her weapon is an elegant dagger and she performs Wire Fu.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Gu and Yang sleep once together. They have a child.
  • Mood Whiplash: The day after the battle in the deserted palace, Gu is laughing when he sees his stratagems have worked. Then he realizes the bloodshed the battle was.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Gu is a man of letters (and a public writer). Actually, he is an avatar of Pu Songling, the author of the original story.
  • Non-Action Guy: Gu is not a fighter. He is paired with Yang Hui-zhen, the Lady of War, who has to rescue him in the end. After sleeping with her, he becomes The Strategist.
  • Old, Dark House: The deserted palace next to Gu's house.
  • One-Man Army: Yang Hui-zhen, General Shi, and General Lu can easily defeat many mooks.
  • Picture-Perfect Presentation: There is a transition from the face of Ouyang Nian to his portrait made by Gu.
  • The Smart Guy: Gu is a man of letters. He becomes The Strategist.
  • Split Screen: It is used to show the spread of the rumours about the ghosts of the deserted palace.
  • Starving Artist: Gu is a man of letters and a painter. He is quite poor and his mother urges him to sit the exam to become a mandarin.
  • The Strategist: Gu sets up a complex plan to defeat Men Da and his numerous soldiers.
  • Taking the Veil: After the battle in the deserted palace, Yang Hui-zhen retires to Hui-yuan's monastery.
  • Touch of Death: Abbot Hui-yuan kills Xu Xian-chun by touching the centre of his forehead.
  • Vicariously Ambitious: Gu's mother would like him to sit the exams to become a Mandarin.
  • Waif-Fu: The frail Yang Hui-zhen is a one-woman army.
  • "Wanted!" Poster: Gu is asked to copy one with Yang Hui-zhen's face. Later, an old man spots Gu thanks to another poster.
  • Warrior Monk: The eastern variant. Abbot Hui-yuan is a powerful fighter. His followers are good too.
  • Wire Fu: Yang Hui-zhen, her allies and worthy opponents fight this way.
  • World of Badass: Yang Hui-zhen, General Shi, General Lu, and Abbot Hui-yuan are exceptional fighters. They encounters worthy opponents (Ouyang Nian, Men Da, Xu Xian-chun). Gu becomes The Strategist.
  • Wuxia: In Ming China, Yang Hui-zhen, an honourable warrior, fights against the agents of corrupt Eunuch Wei.


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