Once upon a time in fifth century China, colour-coded armies clash in numerous, pointless clan wars plunging the world in turmoil. Unable to follow the conflicting orders of two belligerent generals, hapless young soldier Ti Ming Kei (Yuen Biao) abandons the army. Forced to flee, he strikes a short-lived alliance with a portly warrior from the opposing side (Sammo Hung), who is equally sick of the war, and eventually escapes to the Zu mountain range, fabled mystical haven of Taoist immortals, fairies and all manner of magical beings. Sheltering inside a creepy cave, Ti is attacked by glowing-eyed demons. Flying to his rescue comes Taoist super-swordsman Ting Yen (Adam Cheng, who is to Chinese swordplay films what John Wayne or Gary Cooper are to the western), who despatches the monsters with an armada of flying swords shooting out of the scabbard slung across his back.
A grateful Ti urges Ting Yen to take him on as a disciple and help end the war. But Ting Yen believes the mortal world is beyond saving. He would rather remain on Zu where he can make a difference because here good and evil are easily indentifiable absolutes. These words will come back to haunt him. Soon our mismatched heroes, joined by helicopter-hat-wearing monk Hsiao (Damian Lau) and his comically callow young student, Yat Jan (Meng Hoi), find themselves pitted against legions of pasty-faced evildoers in league with the Blood Monster, an ancient, shapeshifting evil entity hellbent on dooming mankind.
In a hyperkinetic, proto-videogame battle involving cel animated energy webs, giant flaming logs waved like wizard wands and circles of spinning steel frisbees, Hsiao is poisoned but the Blood Monster is temporarily caged thanks to Long Brows (Sammo Hung, in his second role as arguably the film’s most fondly remembered character) and his mighty mystical eyebrows. Beat that, Martin Scorsese. Our heroes spirit Hsiao to the Ice Fortress hoping to enlist the magical aid of the Ice Queen (achingly lovely Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, then the biggest star in Chinese cinema) and her all-female fairy handmaidens. In a remarkably explosive manifestation of semi-sexual passion - a concept that came to characterise the Hong Kong New Wave style of swordplay cinema - the Ice Queen spars with Ting Yen, sparking a star-crossed love for the righteous sword hero, before curing Hsiao. But Ting is tragically tainted with the Blood Monster’s evil energy, opening a doorway for it to enslave the world unless our young heroes can save the day.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a seminal Hong Kong film. Part influenced by Star Wars (1977), New Wave wunderkind Tsui Hark employed Hollywood special effects wizards, substituting lightsabers and laser guns with flying swordsmen and magic spells, yet delved back into the oldest genre in Chinese literature and art. In doing so he gave birth to a new style of cinema that, for better or worse, even exerted its influence upon the west. For some the film remains controversial. A recent documentary profiling Bruce Lee cited Zu as betraying his core philosophy with its fanciful wire work and special effects. Which sorely misses the point given realism is not generally an issue within allegorical fairytales. Even some of advocates are guilty of misreading Hark’s achievement as a revolution in form rather than content.
In fact, although the film looks to Star Wars in terms of spectacle and frenetic pace, its spiritual and philosophical inclinations run closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the work of one of Hark’s favourite filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky. At the same time, Zu sports a distinctively irreverent tone far removed from the po-faced posturing of the films martial arts stalwart Chang Cheh made throughout the preceding decade. It is a deceptively silly yet contemplative film very much in line with classic Taoist fables combining humour with spiritual lessons. On a personal note, seeing Zu as a wide-eyed eight year old opened my eyes to the boundless possibilities of cinema.
The helter-skelter narrative, too often wrongly derided as nonsensical or episodic, is actually cunningly conceived as a string of individual set-pieces that have an immediate, visceral impact yet whose cumulative effect is only apparent upon multiple viewings. One suspects Hark designed his film this way. Just as Chinese calligraphy seeks to translate the energy underlining an idea or tangible object via a masterful pen stroke, so do the set-pieces in Zu attempt the perfect synthesis of performance, action choreography (by actor-director Corey Yuen Kwai), lighting, camera movement and editing towards a poetic punchline, so to speak, that builds towards something greater as the film rockets onward. Hark challenges the idea that a genre film should have one unifying tone. Zu is by turns funny, scary, thrilling, introspective, visceral and lyrical.
Yet throughout the madcap antics runs a consistent ideology regarding the duality of good and evil, the futility of war, the redemptive power of love and hope embodied in the impetuous optimism of youth. The film sweeps both hero and viewer along on a wondrous journey, challenging preconceptions about good and evil, right and wrong, and opening our eyes to the endless possibilities of a world both far scarier and more magical than our wildest imaginings. In other words, it follows the pathway of enlightenment only with kick-ass action sequences and surreal humour, such as the scene worthy of Looney Tunes where a fish heckles Ti’s frantic attempt catch dinner.
In Zu evil has a physical form in the Blood Monster yet as a result of the rigid attitudes of the elders attempting to combat it, is also contagious. Over the course of his adventures, Ti sees how both the physical and spiritual worlds are too tightly bound by inflexible rules. The plot is a succession of blunders, misunderstandings and conflicts both minor and major until eventually love, friendship and understanding transcend these restrictions. Only when youngster Ti teams with Yat Jan and the feistiest fairy at the Ice Fortress (oh-so-cute martial arts star Moon Lee in her film debut) in search of the Twin Magic Swords safeguarded by Wonder Girl I-Chi (Judy Ong) do the good guys stand a chance of saving the universe. Even so, in the midst of the psychedelic final showdown with Blood Monster, it is an act of self-sacrifice born of a star-crossed love that truly turns the tide. The film concludes in a manner both ambiguous and hopeful as a newly transformed superhuman Ti rediscovers his old friend the fat warrior still active on the battlefield. He throws him a magic gourd whereupon Hung’s character appears to fly into the sky, startling his opponent played by Tsui Hark himself. A conclusion that implies the birth of a bright new world.
Interestingly, the original American release of Zu was extensively re-edited with additional footage and a different plot with Yuen Biao as a high school student magically transported to ancient China. Although purists can do without the alterations, this version did introduce an appealing love story between Biao’s hero and Moon Lee which, personally, one wishes had been retained in the original cut. It is actually quite sweet. Tsui Hark returned to the world of Zu almost two decades later with the equally ambitious, albeit tonally different, CGI enhanced Legend of Zu (2001).
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.