Director – Tsui Hark – 1983 – Hong Kong – Cert. 12 – 98m
One of the greatest special effects action movies ever made, this groundbreaking epic delivers non-stop, near unbelievable, visually entrancing vistas of Chinese mythology – online in the UK as part of Hong Kong Focus 2021 from Tuesday, February 9th to Monday, February 15th and available on Blu-ray
There are films which seem almost single-handedly to define cultures. There are plenty of elements in Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain that can be found elsewhere in Hong Kong cinema – martial arts stunts, flying wire work, period costumes, stock figures, airborne drapery – and yet the precise way this mixes these elements up then adds in others and adds in lots of 2D effects animation makes it a unique work, even by Tsui’s extraordinary standards.
With the ancient world in which he lives in a state of chaos due to constantly warring human factions, a man gets swiftly out of his depth when he sidesteps all that to follow a hero in the hope of becoming his disciple as the hero battles the forces of evil. If this sounds very highbrow… well, perhaps it is. Or perhaps it’s just an excuse to put together a series of truly extraordinary special effects action set-pieces that transport the viewer to mythological otherworlds the exact like of which have never been seen onscreen before or since.
Ti Ming Chi (Yuen Biao), a scout for the blue-clad forces of Eastern Shu, must flee into hiding when he finds himself subject to two mutually exclusive sets of orders from the two commanders of two different units, each of who will kill him if he doesn’t obey them alone. After first fighting then joining forces with a red-clad, Western Shu soldier (Sammo Hung) on a boat, he stumbles into an underground cavern populated with malevolent entities before being rescued by a heroic warrior (Adam Cheng) and a rival of that warrior with a disciple in tow.
Our hero also crosses the path of Long Brow (Sammo Hung again) whose energies are being occupied with subduing a malevolent Blood Monster which has encased itself in an oval body festooned with defensive tusk protrusions. Long Brow achieves said subjugation by means of his powerful eyebrows, strong enough to hold the monster in check for a limited period of time while he sends Ti to fetch the purple and green dual swords with which the beast can be vanquished.
Building on this overwrought plot framework, Tsui constructs scene after scene of mythological, cinematic magic. Dark figures with glowing eyes rise out of huge urns to propel themselves through the air. A spiritual adept (Brigitte Lin) presides over a cult of women led by Moon Lee in a vast temple interior to which the script refers as the Celestial Fort, accessed via the Jade Pool, a small, inland spa. A leap through the window of an underground passage leads inexplicably to an aquatic escape route back to the Jade Pool.
Near unbelievable, serial, visually entrancing vistas – one man battling a demon trapped in an oval sphere with yards of his own eyebrows, another man swinging a flaming wooden beam around himself before releasing it as a projectile towards his enemy, women hurtling gracefully through the air with 30 yards of drapery unwinding to trail behind them as they fly – grace the screen in between ponderous dialogue intimating frankly unfathomable plot (at least for the English-speaking audience hearing the actors in Cantonese whilst reading the welcome English subtitles – it may flow rather better for those able to think in Cantonese). Yet the stunts and vistas are the thing, and they never let up, the viewer being constantly caught up and carried along in the narrative’s magical dénouement.
The ever-prolific Tsui Hark made and continues to make numerous remarkable films, many of them boasting extraordinary action stuntwork or special effects, among them cops and robbers thriller The Killer (producer only, John Woo, 1989) and female goddess epic Green Snake (1993). But somehow he’s never made anything quite as visionary as this film which fused physical Chinese martial arts stunts with Western special effects and contemporary animation effects for the first time almost two decades before Hollywood’s slick, SF actioner The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers as they then were, 1999). Almost 40 years on, Zu Warriors remains one of the handful of truly great visual spectaculars ever to grace the screen. There’s very little elsewhere in the movies to touch it.
Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain plays online in the UK as part of Hong Kong Focus 2021 from Tuesday, February 9th to Monday, February 15th.
Trailer (Eureka! Video 2K restoration – a Blu-ray is available):