俠女, translated as A Touch of Zen, is a Taiwanese wuxia marxial arts masterpiece by King Hu that won the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was initially released as a two-part film which was later combined to a 187 minute film in 1971. Its uniqueness is not only its running time, but also its thematic scenes of Buddhism. Unlike most wuxia films that have focus on its action, A Touch of Zen portrays Buddhism as a contrast to the uptight Confucian government that aims to track down the protagonist, Yang Hui-zhen.
Yang Hui-zhen is a fugitive noblewoman in disguise who seeks refuge. Her father was an honourable general who attempted to warn the Emperor of Eunuch Wei’s wrongdoings, but Eunuch caught and unreasonably executed him. This incident brings Yang’s family to danger. Eunuch who wants to erase all traces of the family, tracks down Yang who seeks refuges in a remote, and allegedly haunted, village.
Surprisingly, this film does not start from the viewpoints of the protagonist Yang Hui-zhen, but rather an unambitious scholar and painter, Gu Sheng-tsai, who lives in the village Yang would eventually seek refuge. I found this movie easier to watch because Gu is not an expert on martial arts. At the beginning of the film, Gu is a clumsy character but he grows to become a brave individual who assists Yang by using his intellect for tactics to defeat their enemy. I believe viewers like myself who do not know much about martial arts would find themselves learning about it through Gu’s eyes.
The two individuals meet when Yang moves into the village as Gu’s next door neighbour. Gu and his mother were suspicious of Yang at first because she moved into a house that was famous for being haunted. However, Yang in disguise told Gu’s mother that the haunted house was her only option because she was poor. As they shared conversations, Gu’s mother became delighted that her son may have a chance of marrying her. She was tired of being worried about her son’s future because of his lack of ambition to take the civil exam that could help the family get out of poverty. Yang replies with a no, leaving Gu and his mother suspicious of the reason she refused to marry.
Gu later finds out Yang’s true identity as the daughter of an executed general, and decides to support her hiding. Gu plans an attack against Ou-Yang Yin, Eunuch Wei’s henchman, who arrives to the city to end Yang’s life. Though the plan works, Yang flees the village over the night and Gu finds himself alone next morning in the area where they’ve fought. Prior to knowing that Yang had fled, Gu starts laughing uncontrollably as he strolled the area celebrating his victory. This shows spark contrast with Yang who becomes a Buddhist nun living with monks who do not praise excess casualties.
Gu plans a journey to find Yang, but a monk leaves a baby between Gu and Yang with a message stating that Gu would not have to worry about his family ending after him. Gu finds himself in danger because he is wanted by the government, but Yang who is in more danger arrives with her mentor to rescue him from a man who attempted to call the government officials. The two never meets again though, because Yang and the mentor are found by Hsu Hsien-Chen, the army commander of Eunuch Wei, while they allowed Gu to escape.
Several action scenes ensue showing Hsu’s advantage until the Abbot and his monks arrive. The abbot teaches Hsu that it is best if he stayed out of the business. After the monks had shown their strengths against Hsu who ignored the Abbot’s warnings, he bows down to the abbot stating that he would like to be taught Buddhism. However, this was a trap. As the abbot came closer, Hsu resumed fighting. The scene moves to show fighters on the ground who are too tired to continue fighting. The abbot however, walks on top of a bulk of rock and stabs himself allowing gold to flow out of his waist instead of blood. Hsu tries to reach the abbot but instead falls off the rock, while Yang stares at the abbot as he rises and starts meditating under the sun imagining Buddha.
Overall, I believe the film encourages us to be modest, particularly with Hu’s portrayal of Buddhism. When I think about action movies, I usually expect a lot of violence but this movie has also allowed me to understand that not all conflicts would have to end in a violent way if one is modest.