Shu shan

(Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Hong Kong - 1983)

by Matt White

Cast: Yuen Biao, Adam Cheng Siu-chow, Damian Lau Chung-yan, Mang Hoi, Bridgette Lin Ching-hsia, Moon Lee Choi-fung, Sammo Hung Kam-bo
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Shui Chung Yuet & Szeto Cheuk-hon
Cinematography: ?
Composer: Kwan Shing Yau
Runtime: 95 minutes

**Note: The version of the film that I am reviewing is the Chinese language release distributed throughout East Asia in its initial run in 1983. At the time the English language version released in the West had significant changes that altered the complete tone of the film. I will touch upon this later in the review.

Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain is a frenetic, expressionistic, and imaginative fantasy film, outclassing any western effort this side of Lord of the Rings. The film was groundbreaking in its mixture of kung fu, wire effects and Hollywood special effects. Unfortunately all of these aspects have been greatly overlooked, partly due to the recent release of its prequel, Legend of Zu, a film that has nowhere near the texture of its predecessor and is more of a showcase of computer effects instead of trying to tell a story.

A close Hollywood comparison would be the original 1977 Star Wars and 1999's Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, both directed by George Lucas. Star Wars was an all around good adventure film with the basic ingredients of good story and characters. To accentuate the story were groundbreaking (for the time) special effects that added to the storytelling, rather than detracted from it. However, Episode I was very by the numbers storytelling with an overuse of special effects that really served absolutely no purpose, making the movie look highly generic and lacking in texture. The same conclusions are drawn when comparing 1983's Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and 2001's Legend of Zu, both directed by Tsui Hark. One is well-rounded fantasy film, with fitting special effects and the other is a confusing mess, completely over saturated by second rate CG effects.

Just like Star Wars, director Tsui Hark jump started a whole new genre of fantasy films in Hong Kong with the likes of the Chinese Ghost Story series, Bride with White Hair, Mr. Vampire and many others. However, Zu remains unsurpassed in terms of sheer imagination and storytelling. Most of this is due to the director, Tsui Hark, who has not really done anything significant in the past ten years when it comes to directing. In terms of influence, there is probably no one in Hong Kong who has been more influential than Tsui Hark. As a director he was the leader of the Hong Kong "New Wave" by creating a fast-paced photographic and editing style that dominates Hong Kong cinema to this day. As a producer, he helped form Cinema City and Film Workshop, production companies that gave struggling directorial talents such as John Woo and Ringo Lam a chance to flex their creative muscles, resulting in groundbreaking films such as A Better Tomorrow, City On Fire and The Killer.

With Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Hark introduced Hollywood style special effects and heavy use of wire work. Some would say this is a bad thing. Since Hong Kong films did not have the budget of their Hollywood counterparts then the special effects would look horrible and wire work really hurt the quality of kung fu films in the 1990's and Hollywood films presently. However, in this film they are used properly. Though the special effects look dated by today's standards, Hark utilizes them to their utmost potential and weaves them in seamlessly to the world he has created (To make sure the effects were done right he hired some of those who worked on Star Wars to overlook the production). The wire work seems fitting because this movie is a fantasy film, so there is not that much of a leap of faith required to enjoy the film.

The main plot of the film is rather simple. The Zu mountains are a legendary mountain range located in Sichuan province of China. Those who control the mountain range, control the area. Yuen Biao plays Ting Ming Chi, a scout for the West Zu clan, who is in a war with the East Zu. After being disillusioned by war he accidentally meets someone from East Zu, played by Sammo Hung. While they are trying to run away, Ting falls off a cliff and is transported to some sort of underground fantasy world where he meets a magical swordsman by the name of Ting-Yin (Adam Cheng) who is on a quest to destroy the "Evil Disciples". To assist Ting-Yin are the Zen Buddhist priests Hsiao-Yu (Damian Lau) and his student Yi-Chen (Mang Hoi). Unfortunately, Ting-Yin and Hsiao-Yu do not like each other, leading to quite a bit of bickering. They are then sent on a quest by the One Eyebrow priest (Sammo Hung, again) to retrieve the "Twin Swords" on Heaven's Blade peak, the only weapon that can defeat the Blood Demon, the main source of evil in the land.

However, they are sidetracked when both Hsiao-Yu and Ting-Yin are poisoned by the Blood Demon. They head to a temple to visit a sorceress called, "The Countess" (Bridgette Lin), who does not like Ting-Yin and Hsiao-Yu. Ting Ming Chi and Yi-Chen even have a run in with The Countess's head guard, played by Moon Lee. Since Ting-Yin and Hsiao-Yu are poisoned by the Blood Demon, they become evil, leading to the destruction of the whole temple. Only Ting Ming Chi, Yi-Chen and The Countess's guard survive. They then realize it's their respective master's bickering which led to their destruction, therefore they have to unite in order to triumph over evil. They go to Heaven's Blade Peak, find the Twin Swords and defeat the Blood Demon. After the world is saved, Ting Ming Chi looks down towards China and sees the people still fighting, realizing their futility.

Interestingly, the main focus of the film is not on the struggle between good and evil but rather the internal struggle of the "good guys". The three main camps of good are the Swordsmen, Ting-Yin and Ting Ming Chi, the Monks, Hsiao-Yu and Yi-Chen and the Sorceress's The Countess and her main bodyguard. The three "masters" Ting-Yin, Hsiao-Yu and The Countess do not get along and all end up dying. However, the three students, agree to unite and put their disagreements aside, and end up defeating evil rather easily. In fact, the only trouble they have when they obtain the Twin Swords is from the demon possessed Ting-Yin, who tries to thwart them.

The whole story of Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain could be seen as an allegory about the situation modern China was in at the time. Mainland China was under communist rule and was at odds (and still is) with Taiwan (ruled by the exiled Repulic of China government) and British ruled Hong Kong. The older leaders of these three Chinese states were always at odds, and many were hoping that the new generation of Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiao-ping (mainland China), Chiang Ching-kuo (Taiwan) and Margaret Thatcher could come to some sort of unified agreement. Even though Hong Kong went back to China in 1997, there is still much animosity between the Mainland and Taiwan that will probably not be solved for a while. So just as you have three forces of the Swordsmen, the monks and sorceress's not getting along you have China, Taiwan and Hong Kong at odds as well. So the movie could be seen as a plea for unity.

All allegory aside, the film as a whole is quite entertaining. With this film, Tsui Hark mastered what would then become the trademark of Hong Kong cinema of a fast paced storytelling, fitting a story that would normally take 120 minutes in Hollywood in to a 90-minute time frame. It's done almost effortlessly in this film. However, the only drawback is if you even as much blink you might miss a pivotal plot element, so you have to pay really close attention or it becomes confusing really fast.

The set pieces are frenetic and fast paced. Unlike most martial arts movies, this movie does not focus on kung fu set pieces but rather it tends to lend itself more towards the fantasy aspects. Instead of long swordfights, the swordsman just dispenses with the villains with his flying sword. In fact, the film becomes a film about motion; everything is always moving. The characters and action are hardly ever static. This is where the wire work comes in as being quite important. Since this is a fantasy world, most of the characters never really "walk" per se, but rather they glide or fly most of the time. It helps develop the sense of mood that we are really in a fantasy world, and not just in the extension of our "real" world.

The acting is about what you would expect from a Hong Kong film. The all star cast all do their roles to perfection, but its all just standard genre acting. Yuen Biao (Ting Ming Chi) always had a youthful look and utilizes it perfectly by always being amazed and lost while in this unfamiliar fantasy world. The only other real standout is Adam Cheng (Ting-Yin) as the Swordsman and mentor to Yuen Biao's character. He plays the loner swordsman role to perfection by always having an air of loneliness and bitterness to his delivery. Once he officially makes Ting Ming Chi his student, the scene is very heartfelt because there is a sense that he cares about Ting Ming Chi and wants him to survive in the fantasy world.

About the alternate cut of the movie: According to Tsui Hark, Golden Harvest, the films financier, released Zu: Warriors of The Magic Mountain in Hong Kong somewhat prematurely. He insists that he was not finished with the film. However, Golden Harvest, seeing that the film was over budget and over scheduled released the film to Hark's protest. Before the film was released in an English language version, Hark sought extra funding from an independent British film company to complete the filming for the Western release. The result is Zu Time Warriors (the English name of the picture). The film opens with Yuen Biao as a Canadian fencing champion who has a freak accident and is transported to ancient China where he descends in to the fantasy world of Zu. After the adventure is over, he wakes up and proposes to his girlfriend (Moon Lee in a duel role).

If you buy or rent the "English Language" version that was released by Tai Seng home video in the United States, this is the version you will find. It completely changes the whole tone of the film (even more than the infamous Han Solo/Greedo scene in the Star Wars special edition). It now takes a more Wizard of Oz type of approach to the whole story and even acquiring the "there's no place like home" theme. I am not saying that is better or worse. It is just different.

Both versions however, are an excellent introduction the Hong Kong fantasy genre and Hong Kong films in general. It illustrates all that is good about 80's Hong Kong films with the fast paced and frenetic editing and camerawork that has been poorly imitated in the US. Even though most of the movie was shot on a set rather than locations, it adds to the expressionism that would make a filmmaker like George Melies proud. Like Star Wars it has good characters, story and set pieces all accentuated by good special effects. It contains all the elements that make a good fantasy film.





* Copyright 2003 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *