- Ravi Swami
"Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain", Dir:Tsui Hark, 1983
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
"Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain", directed by Tsui Hark has been on my watchlist for some time and thanks to the new kid on the block, Asian cinema streaming service Focus Hong Kong, I was at last able to watch it yesterday in full 1084 HD - can you ask for more?.
The film came highly recommended for its' dazzling mix of "Wuxia" martial arts aerial wire-work and visual effects and being a fan of Hark's later "Chinese Ghost Story" (1987), I was looking forward to being blown away.
Admittedly it's never advisable to review a film that you've watched late in the evening and when you're drifting in and out of sleep, as I was, but then I maintain that a good film will often keep me awake no matter what, and there are a number of factors that come into play, pacing being one.
The film was Tsui Hark's breakout hit and broke box-office records on its release for it's no-hold-barred approach to the Chinese martial arts film genre that had already scored several outstanding films up to that point - here Hark pushes the aesthetic to new heights, possibly inspired by the frenetic editing style of the original Star Wars trilogy and pop-videos, and where the pace of the action is so blisteringly fast that keeping up with the narrative flow becomes a challenge.
In fact this is the film's main weakness since any pretense towards coherent narrative is ditched in favour of visual spectacle and inventive ideas, and added to this is the impenetrable nature of the mythology and references that would be easily understood by native Chinese viewers, and not helped by possibly approximate translation in the subtitles.
Overall I came away somewhat disappointed though there is a lot to like in this film, from the witty dialogue to the creepy supernatural ambience and the terrific optical effects where Hark enlisted the help of Hollywood effects animators and optical effects experts who had previously worked on the Star Wars films, such as Robert Blalack and Peter Kuran, and it certainly looks as if they had a lot of fun expanding on the usual repertoire of hand-animated light sabers and electricity bolts seen in those films to depict all sorts of colourful energy blasts etc.
To give Tsui Hark his due, admittedly this *was* his first film to explore the "Wuxia" genre more thoroughly with a bigger budget and give it his personal stamp, and its success, rather than being a "one-hit-wonder" meant that he could go on to polish his style further in a succession of hit films, 1987's "Chinese Ghost Story" being a notable example, and where any issues to do with plot structure and logic are addressed in a more satisfying fashion, and indeed he continues to produce outstanding "Wuxia" genre films that just keep getting better and better, more so with the introduction of digital effects to augment the often stupendous wire-work by stunt performers, which is the main draw of these films.
Returning to "Chinese Ghost Story", this was released soon after Russell Mulcahy's cult classic "Highlander" (1985) and there is no doubt that Mulcahy's film owes a debt to Hark and others in terms of exploring a particular genre of supernatural fantasy with visual effects, something reflected in the hand-animated effects at the film's climax. It also references (or "borrows" depending upon your point of view :)) wholesale some of the visual effects concepts from "Highlander", as a kind of back-handed visual compliment.
"Zu Warriors of Magic Mountain" is also notable for inspiring John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China", chronologically sandwiched between Mulcahy's "Highlander" and Hark's "Chinese Ghost Story", so it's ripples spread far and wide in terms of both the genre and Hark's standing as a director with a unique visual style and approach.
The film concludes in a curiously open-ended way, leaving open the possibility of a sequel to tie up some loose narrative strands since it appears to be depicting a section of a much larger storyline and it's possible that it was viewed by "Golden Harvest", the production studio, as the first in a long-running franchise in a manner similar to George Lucas' "Star Wars", clearly a goal of many studios around the world at the time - as of writing I haven't explored further to see if Tsui Hark had any intentions of building on the film's success with a sequel.