In the early '80s, the world of filmmaking in Hong Kong saw an explosion of vibrant, action-oriented films with fantastic settings and courageous heroes. Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain is one of the seminal films of that new wave. It was the first special effects extravaganza of its kind, and it made Tsui Hark into arguably the most powerful director in the territory. Unlike some of the films spawned by this renaissance, however, Zu does not cross over with the Western world. It is a thoroughly Chinese film, with its geographical and mythological feet planted firmly in the East.
The film begins with events that would not be wholly out of place in a Three Stooges comedy, minus a Stooge. In the Fifth Century, Ti Ming Chi (Yuen Biao) is a scout for the Western Zu army. His two commanders disagree on strategy, and when he cannot obey both their orders at once, they decide to kill him for treason. Ti flees and befriends a corpulent warrior (our second Stooge, Sammo Hung) from the other side. The two of are then embroiled in a Tolkien-esque battle of four different armies. This sequence is played exclusively for laughs; Sammo and Yuen bring comic timing to new heights as they do whatever they can to avoid actual combat.
"I've been cast in a Bon Jovi video!"
As the battle reaches a climax, Ti falls off a cliff and into the larger, mythically oriented portion of the movie. Upon stumbling into a cave, he is attacked by an evil disembodied head (we hate when that happens) and is subsequently rescued by Ting Yi (Adam Cheng), a swordsman of great skill. In films like this "great skill" includes the ability to fly, move at superhuman speeds, and cause his sword to fly around and kill his enemies remotely. Ti immediately lobbies to become Ting's student, though Ting has better things to do. The "Evil Disciple" is loose, and Ting has sworn to kill him. Matters are only further confused when Abbot Yu (a rival of Ting's, played by Damien Lau) and his student (Man Hoi) arrive to fight the Evil Disciple as well. Even together, however, the two are no match for the pale-faced demon. The Abbot is poisoned, and the group is forced to flee.
"Doesn't anyone have a
pair of tweezers?"
Sammo Hung returns to the film as the mysterious Long Brow, a powerful priest who wields a weapon called the Sky Mirror. He also commands long eyebrows that are themselves magical. Long Brow holds at bay an evil force that may be related to the Evil Disciple, or it may be that Ultimate Evil Donald Pleasence was always on about. We were never really sure. There is also some talk about the Blood Monster, so that may be it. In any case, Long Brow uses the Sky Mirror and his dexterous facial hair to encase the evil force and hold it out in space! But as you might expect, this is only a stopgap solution. Once the Big Dipper shifts in 49 days the Sky Mirror's power will be spent and the world will be destroyed. (Look, we didn't write these subtitles, okay?) Now our heroes have a mission. They must heal the Abbot, find two magical swords, and return to the cave to fight the Ultimate Evil.
Wouldn't Woman in Red have
been a better movie if this woman
had killed Gene Wilder?
The first part of the quest takes up a surprising amount of the film's running time, and frankly it isn't very interesting. Our heroes make their way to the Ice Fort, get the attention of the Ice Countess (Brigette Lin), fight some handmaidens (including Moon Lee), go through this whole huge healing ceremony... and then almost as soon as they leave Ting is poisoned by the Evil Disciple, so they do it all again. There's some sort of love story going on here between the Countess and Ting, but who really cares? The world needs to be saved, and we need magic swords to do it!
Obtaining the magic swords is easy. Our remaining heroes (Ti, the Abbot's student, and one of the Countess' handmaidens) travel to the border of Good and Evil, where the swords fly up to present themselves. Sure, there's a moment when the entire group finds themselves in Hell. There are also some giant chains, a good bit of flying around, and finally they must woo a supernaturally-inclined woman, but in a movie this frantic all of this is hardly worth mentioning. With the swords firmly in hand, Ti and company rush off to do battle with the Evil Disciple and the newly-released Blood Monster.
Some people we know could
find something dirty in this.
In many ways, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain is the Hong Kong equivalent of Star Wars, even to the extent that Hark hired some of the same effects artists. More importantly, it opened the door for other films of its kind: lavishly produced fantasies based on the stories of Eastern spiritualism. Hark would go on to produce the equally spectacular Chinese Ghost Story series, as well as a number of other Chinese historical films (Once Upon a Time in China comes to mind) and more modern action films. Other filmmakers followed suit, quickly making the Hong Kong film scene among the most exciting in the world. Even now filmmakers revisit Zu's look and feel. Tsui Hark himself returned to the material (enhanced with CGI special effects) with the just-released Legend of Zu. Miramax will release the original Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain in the US early next year, under the title of Zu Warriors (we think).
After watching Zu, you will probably have one of two reactions. Either you will shake your head in confusion and promptly forget about the movie (after which you may try to satisfy your need for the familiar by watching You've Got Mail again), or you will want to watch it another time to sort out just exactly what went on. Fortunately, there are rewards for repeat viewers, as the jokes are easier to detect and the effects become more impressive once you have a handle on the plot. It is perhaps not the most coherent story ever written, and the pacing is slow in the middle, but it does have heart and some terrific action sequences. It may be weird, but it's fun too.