Atop the mystical mountain range of Zu, immortal hero King Sky (Ekin Cheng) falls in love with his martial arts master, the beautiful and enigmatic Dawn (Cecilia Cheung). But Dawn is tragically killed in battle against Insomnia, an ancient evil entity alternately manifesting itself as thousands of free-floating rocks, a sky-spanning blanket of crimson plasma and a faceless ghoul with the voice of a child. Bent on conquering all of Heaven and Earth, Insomnia destroys Ku Lun Mountain and its heroic kung fu sect, leaving Sky the lone survivor. Two hundred years later, while Grand Master Whitebrows (Sammo Hung, reprising his much beloved role) of the Omei sect struggles to contain Insomnia inside its magical prison, hope for the survival of the universe falls on a plucky young acolyte named Enigma (Cecilia Cheung, again), whom Sky discovers is the reincarnation of his lost love. Except Enigma remembers nothing about her previous life.
Eighteen years on from the seminal Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) visionary Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark revisited the wondrous world of Zu. Partly in response to the then-recent blockbusting success of CGI laden fantasy Storm Riders (1998), from whence he cast his leading man, Ekin Cheng. Armed with a hefty budget of thirty-five million dollars, part financed by Miramax moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein, state-of-the-art computer wizardry, no less than three gifted cinematographers including Poon Hang-Sang, William Yim Wai-Lun and prolific director Herman Yau, and an all-star cast headed by the biggest star in Hong Kong cinema at that time: the lovely Cecilia Cheung (after Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia declined to reprise her iconic role from the original), Hark sought to up the ante both in terms of special effects and thematic content. For while Storm Riders was all style and no substance, Legend of Zu attempts to explore weighty metaphysical and philosophical issues.
It is a radically different film from its predecessor. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, though prevalent in the madcap original, is far more pronounced here. The pace is less frenetic, almost dreamlike and the tone more lyrical though at times somewhat austere with humour almost wholly absent, which to be honest is something of a minor misstep. Whereas events in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain unfolded through the awestruck eyes of a mere mortal, Legend of Zu for the most part adopts the perspective of ageless super-beings as they ponder the greater mysterious of life, the universe and everything.
The fractured narrative encompasses three intertwined plot strands. In the first, King Sky and his friendly rival Red (Louis Koo), who sports a cool set of projectile-shooting steel wings, battle against the evil entity that uses their own suppressed desires against them as the latter makes a fatal error sprung from his attraction to an evil punk rock Tinkerbell-like fairy called Amnesia (Kelly Lin Hsi-Lei). The second concerns Joy (Ziyi Zhang), a young mortal soldier who abandons an earthly conflict in pursuit of enlightenment atop Zu. We follow her training at the hands of immortal swordsman Thunder (Patrick Tam), with whom she falls in love until forced to choose between heavenly splendour or bringing light to the earth. Finally, the third and most important strand focuses on Enigma who is haunted by memories of her former self whilst attempting to master the heaven-shaking, rainbow hued superpowers needed to annihilate Insomnia. Her first attempt ends disastrously for fellow fairy being Hollow (Ng Hong) as he plummets to earth to be reincarnated as Ying (Jacky Wu Jing, who brings real zest to his role), a shiny, hyperactive new soul with more enthusiasm than sense. Coerced into tutoring the callow youth by none other than Sky, Enigma ends up on the path to her own spiritual reawakening.
Although Hark successfully draws these disparate strands together, of the three Joy’s subplot feels underdeveloped. It is as if he felt compelled to shoehorn the hot new star of Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) into an already overcrowded production. Nevertheless, the theme of reincarnation enables Hark to delve into the deeper question of what it is that defines us as human beings. Is it something as hard to define as the soul or are we the sum total of our memories? Or perhaps something bigger than ourselves, stretching into the infinite? In its exploring these themes Hark revisits a whole host of motifs familiar from the original Zu: the duality of evil (once again a good guy gets possessed by an agent of evil), the contrast between petty earthly strife and the greater significance of a cosmic battle for the human soul, the heartening cycle of death and rebirth, and of course the enduring redemptive power of love.
Legend of Zu had the misfortune to arrive in that bizarre post-You’ve Got Mail period in Hong Kong when local filmgoers held no interesting in anything other than social media-themed romantic comedies. Audiences at time were less than enamoured with the esoteric subject matter and the film proved a domestic flop, although achieved success across other Asian territories and notably in France where it topped the box-office for weeks and was greatly acclaimed. Meanwhile, true to form, the Weinstein brothers inexplicably withheld the film from release in the United States for several years before eventually shunting it out on DVD under the confusing title of Zu Warriors.
In terms of eye-popping spectacle Legend of Zu easily outdoes its predecessor. Complimenting the exhilarating action choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping, fresh off The Matrix (1999), the CGI effects were breathtaking at the time and have held up extremely well. Largely because Hark shunned pseudo-realism in favour of painting a phantasmagorical picture lensed in lustrous colours. Shot entirely against a green screen, long before the process grew overfamiliar, the whole film resembles an ancient mythological scroll painting brought vividly to electric life. It is arguably the most beautiful looking Hong Kong fantasy ever made, yet counterbalances its psychedelic excess with a heady sense of romance and cerebral intent. The film also features a gorgeously evocative, exotic score from Ricky Ho Kwok-Kit.
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.