Notes on A Touch of Zen

The following pieces by director King Hu were originally published as part of a 1975 press kit for A Touch of Zen, at the time of its screening at the Cannes Film Festival. They have been edited for the Criterion release of the film and are published courtesy of the Taiwan Film Institute.

Making the Film

Pu Song-ling (1640–1715) was a poor scholar; born at the end of the Ming period, he died early on in the reign of the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty. He obtained only the first level of hsiu-tsai (bachelor’s degree) in the imperial civil service examinations and never managed to distinguish himself in officialdom. In literature, however, his accomplishments were considerable: his Liaozhai zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio) lives on as a work of rich imaginative powers in an elegant, archaic style.

In my student days, Liaozhai was one of my favorite books; its bizarre tales of ghosts and fox spirits held me spellbound for days on end. Indirectly, the book also helped me to acquire an abundance of literary images and unusual expressions.

Ever since I started making films, I have wanted to adapt one of the Liaozhai tales for the screen. Two difficulties had caused me to hesitate: most of the stories have too simple a plot to satisfy the requirements of a film script; and their themes are heavily didactic—often reflecting the author’s own bitterness over his repeated failure of the imperial examinations—and generally lacking a meaningful message.

Some years ago, I was talking about Zen with some passionately literary friends, and my mind went back to one of the Liaozhai stories, “Xia nu” (“The Heroic Maid”). I was struck by the thought that if it could be filmed with a touch of Zen, the result might be highly effective.

But when I started working on the scenario, I discovered that translating the concept of Zen into cinematic terms posed a great many difficulties. Not long afterward, I made the acquaintance of an old man who was a devout Buddhist. He told me that Zen is something that can’t be explained but only experienced through wu (awakening to the truth). As for the innumerable books, in both Chinese and Western languages, that seek to analyze Zen using Western philosophical concepts, they are bound to confuse the matter.

The only way to wu is through yu (example or analogy); that is why the Buddhist scriptures include a volume called Baiyu jing (Sutra of a Hundred Parables). Wu is not subject to logical analysis. It would be difficult, for example, to explain the concept of sweetness to someone who had never tasted sugar, but giving him a cube of it would be enough to enlighten him once and for all. I must add here, however, that I am not a Buddhist myself, and that I don’t have the least intention of being didactic or evangelical in my approach to this matter. All I am interested in is presenting the flavor of a particular experience.

The words of that old man illuminated things for me very clearly. And so I spent six months writing the screenplay for A Touch of Zen. But when it came time to prepare for shooting, I encountered fresh obstacles. In order to inject the necessary supernatural dimension—the touch of Zen—into the film, all the costumes, sets, and props would have to be not only realistic but completely authentic. The set designers at the studio sometimes had a hard time grasping what I had in mind, and so I ultimately had to do most of that work with my own hands. From drawing board to construction site, every detail was under my direct supervision. During this phase of the work, I also had the invaluable aid of the actor and actress who would play two of the lead roles in the film, Bai Ying and Hsu Feng.

The set for the haunted military fort alone took us nine months to construct. My funds were limited, and the producer was pressuring me to do things less meticulously, but I wanted to put all the resources of my art into this film. This struggle left me completely drained, spiritually and financially.

About two years were spent making the film. We often found ourselves shooting at a time of year that didn’t correspond with the season indicated in the script. That obliged us to shoot many scenes out of sequence. We went through three successive photographers, and I had to personally make sure that the lighting and atmosphere of sections that had been filmed piecemeal were harmonious. That too was a demanding task.

Toward the end, the costs had gotten extremely high, and the producer demanded that the film be divided into two parts that could be shown separately. That posed appalling problems for me: it was a matter of splitting apart something that had been conceived and filmed as one piece. Dealing with these editing issues took another three months. To this day, I prefer the original version, even though it runs no less than three hours.

About the Eastern Depot

Dong Chang (the Eastern Depot) was a special service organization during the Ming dynasty, one of the most powerful and vicious secret police forces in all of the history of China. Answering directly to the emperor, the Eastern Depot was controlled and directed by the eunuchs of the court. It had license to arrest and execute any member of the populace, up to and including highly placed ministers of the court, without having to clear it through any administrative or judicial departments of the government. It is not too much to say that the power of the Eastern Depot exceeded that of the modern Gestapo, and the very mention of its name was enough to cause innocent people to shake in their boots.

My films A Touch of Zen and the earlier Dragon Inn both have to do with the nefarious ways of the Eastern Depot. The James Bond films were all the rage at the time, a trend of which I did not quite approve. To my mind, whatever the purpose of a secret service organization, when it becomes too powerful, it is bound to be harmful to the people. Of course, much of the action in the James Bond stories was sheer fantasy, but they were nevertheless extremely popular and could not but exert an unsanitary influence. For this reason, in A Touch of Zen I sought to expose some of the evil deeds of an organization such as the Eastern Depot.

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