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A college student (Yuen Biao) at a university in Canada is a fencing champion and when he has an accident one day, he "dreams" of being transported to ancient China and enters a conflict on Zu, the Magic Mountain. At the end of the story, he regains consciousness (this is in the longer English international version). The first and shorter version is about a warrior (Yuen Biao) who has become disillusioned with the constant civil wars in China and goes to the Magic Mountain. There he encounters ghosts and devils, and also good masters and their disciples who are out to stop the Blood Monster and his demons from destroying the world. Written by
To truly appreciate Tsui Hark's film Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, one must approach the film from a total aesthetic view. The film is really a site to behold, moves at an unbelievably fast pace, and employs some of the zaniest special effects and action sequences ever captured on film. Zu Warriors is also pure Hark: no other director could have crammed 3000 years of Chinese mythology into an 98-minute mini-epic with as much visceral stimuli, humor, over the top action and nuttiness as Hark did. And, only Tsui Hark could make such a convoluted mess of a narrative so much pure fun to behold.
Zu Warriors is the ultimate Martial Arts fantasy. However, Hark uses this fantasy backdrop for politically charged themes and metaphors. The film starts with two rival soldiers, Ti Ming who fights for the "blue army" and East Zu Soldier who fights for the "orange army", trying to escape (quite comically I might add) the absurdities of war. Ti Ming (Yuen Biao) is court marshaled for agreeing with two of his own generals (one wanted to attack by land, the other by sea. They can't both be right, and since Ti Ming agreed with both, he must be wrong) and East Zu Soldier (Samo Hung) is just on the run from the war. They meet up and are soon ambushed by the "green army", the "yellow army" and the "red army". At this point Biao's character declares "what a colorful war this is!" Right before the attack, Ti Ming and EZS share a moment where they discover they were practically neighbors separated only by a river and the color of their uniforms.
All of this takes place in the first 10 minutes of film! Hark clearly shows his hate of war, the ineptitude of the ruling officials, and how underneath petty differences both sides of the battlefield are the ultimately the same and the soldiers really don't want to fight. At this point Ti Ming and EZS decide to try and play dead, but soon discover that over half of the fallen soldiers are also playing dead! They both try to escape but EZS is captured while Ti Ming falls from a top a high cliff and lands in a valley of the Magical Mountains. Here Hark clearly moves into another common theme of his: alienation in one's own country. Although Ti Ming is still in his own world, he has fallen into a place where he feels like a fish out of water, a common narrative thread and real life struggle of those living in Hong Kong they are Chinese but not really part of China, alienated from their own nationality.
The film now shifts gears into the utter fantastic. Once within the shadows of the Magic Mountains, Ti Ming meets two strong and crazy warrior monks and a master swordsman who controls two magical flying swords. Ti Ming falls out of a war, and into the ultimate war. He soon discovers that the wars on his plane of reality are fought because of the ultimate battle between good and evil that is constantly going on in the dangerous peaks, valleys, temples and shrines of the Magic Mountains. Here Samo Hung turns up again but this time he is White Brows, a priest who fights evil with his animated facial hair and is the embodiment of ultimate good who is battling the Blood Demon, a giant red monstrosity representing not only the ultimate evil, but red China itself.
Although the film is most definitely a wild fantasy, Hark continues to bombard his audience with allegory of his social-political beliefs. During the next hour the viewer is treated to some of the most imaginative visual film-making ever produced. Hark shows giant stone elephants used as projectiles, ghostly figures who attack from giant clay jars, black cloaked demons who multiply and attack with flags, monks fighting with giant flying cymbals, animated skulls, lightening bolts from finger tips, flying swordsmen, a beautiful mountain top shrine inhabited by beautiful female priestesses led by The Countess (the always good looking Brigitte Lin) and a host of other such amazing sights. It is a good thing that the film is so aesthetically pleasing, because ultimately this is really the only level the film truly works on. When it comes to a well-structured plot without the need for the audience to make HUGE leaps in continuity or logic, Zu Warriors unfortunately falls flat. It is just too scatter brained and Hark tried to cram too much into such a short running time.
Although the narrative and characters may be lost and utterly convoluted, what stands out are Hark's message and his energy. The pure kinetic force of Zu Warriors can really be felt oozing from the screen. This is the type of energy typically found in a young director, doing new things, and challenging the conventions and institutions of the day. However, Hark unlike many directors, continued to channel this energy throughout the majority of his career. Zu Warriors may be a narrative disaster but what it lacks in cohesiveness, it more than makes up for in pure excitement and entertainment. ZU Warriors not only launched the entire fantasy martial arts genre (which by the way directly influenced Sam Raimi to make Evil Dead and John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China) but it launched the career of one of the worlds most creative directors who continues to shape the landscape of genre film-making even today. And for this we should all be eternally grateful.
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