Friday, August 18, 2006

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983)
Cantonese Title: Suk san: Sun Suk san geen hap

Although Tsui Hark has directed a few features before, it was Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain that catapulted him to Hong Kong's pop consciousness. It's no surprise, Tsui's previous efforts were mostly trashy, genre films that didn't rake in enough money at the Hong Kong box office. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a success from the start. It starred up and coming up Hong Kong superstars and is a variation of a genre that Chinese moviegoers delighted in: the wuxia. Moreover, the film boasted of Hollywood-level special effects, and that certainly aroused the curiosity of those who were enchanted by George Lucas' Star Wars (1977).

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a cinematic adaptation of an old Chinese tale. It is about a young soldier, Ti (Biao Yuen), who finds himself tired of the endless fighting between the different factions of Zu. Upon luckily escaping a battlefield, he chances upon a cave wherein he is attacked by an evil force, only to be rescued by traveling swordsman Ting Yin (Adam Cheng). The duo then enters the temple of evil, with a monk and his student, and fights out the leader of all evil, which eventually escapes, only to return as the Blood Demon, which is momentarily encapsulated by an aging kung fu master (Sammo Hung), giving the heroes a month to look for the twin swords that will supposedly stop the Blood Demon from hatching and destroy the world.

If my attempt to make a synopsis of the film is confusing to you, I can't really blame you, as I had a difficult time following the film's plot which changes in movement in a sudden flick of a finger. Tsui's pacing is feverish, obviously making the story suffer in exchange for visual tricks and grandiose set pieces. But from what I gathered from the fast forwarded fantasy, the film is actually quite straightforward and lacks a complexity most film viewers are aching for in current cinema. Tsui throws away any notion of time, making the eventualities in the film, more fluid, thus creating an illusion that the lines between good and evil are simple and thick. Characters find themselves switching sides in constant variation. Ting Yin starts out as a virtuous swordsman, then ends up as a possessed demon. The ice countess (Brigitte Lin) is first encountered as a fiery witch, then turning into an indistinguishable side character, and finally sacrifices herself in the name of everything good. Virtues are learned in up tempo manner, and the same are discarded even faster. The only person who stays the same is Ti, the hero who is tired of unclear sides. He is after all the young soldier for a side that is distinguished by just colors, instead of moral rights and wrongs, or even ideologies of justice and its opposite.

Tsui remakes Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain for the new millennium replacing the outdated special effects of 1983 with an over-reliance to CGI. I haven't seen the remake in its entirety, but from the little of what I saw, I just gave up. It literally looked like shit, and lacked the earthiness, the fanciful mindlessness of Tsui's filmmaking less than two decades ago. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is far from being the masterpiece others would like to have it. I actually didn't like it, despite having a lot of fun watching the characters fly in ease, and do magic kung fu in frantic fashion. It's more of a historical curiosity, an example of how to mesh special effects and filmmaking in an almost seamless marriage, without the benefit of an understandable and definable story.

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