Summer of Sammo: Zu Warriors

Last night I was flipping around hulu and found two movies with similar titles. One is labeled Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which is the title of Tsui Hark’s 1983 fantasy epic, and the other is called Zu Warriors: the Legend of Zu which is Tsui’s 2001 film based on the same source material. The earlier film is a classic, a hallmark in melding high-tech special effects into the Hong Kong kung fu genre, helping spawn a subgenre of martial arts fantasies and also inspiring John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. Zu was one of the first kung fu movies I’d ever seen, in either late 1998 or early ’99, at one of the last Hong Kong double features in Seattle.

I moved to the city just at the tail end of Hong Kong cinema’s trendiness: throughout the 90s, the Varsity Theatre (where I later worked) would play weekly double bills of Jet Li, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and so on. But with the exodus of talent off the island in the wake of the handover to China (all of the above went to Hollywood, at least for awhile), the deterioration of existing prints and the rise in the cost of running repertory, as well as the inevitable change in what counted as fashionable cult cinema, the films disappeared from Seattle screens. Less than ten years later, when we were trying to book Jackie Chan’s Police Story for a little rep series we were running at the Metro, we were told that no one even knew who had the theatrical rights to those movies anymore. Any Chan, Li, or Shaw Brothers movie we could think of was met with shrugged shoulders and a blank stare by Landmark’s film booking department. We ended up playing Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon simply because it was owned outright by an American company (Warner Brothers). Anyway, I was excited to revisit Zu after 15 years, after becoming more fluent in Hong Kong and kung fu cinema in the interim and looking to spend this summer exploring the work of Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung in more depth. So seeing it was on hulu, and in a subtitled version no less, was very exciting.

But alas, both films on hulu are the 2001 movie. The one with the title of the ’83 film is the one I watched, it’s the longer, original cut of the 2001 film, running an hour and forty-five minutes. The other version is the Miramax US cut, which removes 20 minutes of exposition and character building, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. I watched the longer version (of course) and it was confusing enough. I can’t imagine the shorter version being the least bit comprehensible. Both versions are subtitled, but the character names don’t match the ones from either imdb or wikipedia, so I guess only a Chinese-speaker knows how many other ways Miramax fucked up this movie. (See my review of Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey for another rant about Miramax and the subtitling of Hong Kong movies).

Anyway, the 2001 film, which I’m going to call Zu Warriors, is a CGI-driven fantasy epic, with a smattering of kung fu, lots of alien-to-Americans mythology and folklore and a more or less Buddhist allegory. The all-star cast includes Louis Koo, Zhang Ziyi, Sammo Hung, Cecilia Cheung and Ekin Cheng, but the real star is Tsui and his rapid-cutting, no time to breathe approach to story-telling. On top of some floating mountains, a bunch of immortals gather together to defeat Mordo (or Insomnia, or the Blood Demon), the embodiment and source of all evil (greed and jealousy), before he eats them all and infects the Earth below. Characters fly around, shoot spiritual energy out of their hands, get possessed, destroyed, reincarnated, enlightened and destroyed again. An endless cycle of creation and destruction where the only hope is unity: of the various mountain clans; of lightning and thunder; of human and immortal; of male and female; of mind, body and spirit.

The CGI effects have a fun comic book-quality, bright bursts of red and green and orange and blue stabbing across purple and yellow skies, at times recalling Harryhausen (an attack by an army of Mordo’s self-replicatiing minions brings to mind the skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts) or Brakhage (the abstract color explosions of the film’s final battle). They are decidedly not realistic, nor are they state-of-the-art, even for 2001, but surely those aren’t the only standards by which we can measure visual effects.

Both of the most recent Tsui films that I’ve seen, the kung fu whodunnit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, his second remake of the 1967 King Hu film Dragon Gate Inn, which remains after 45 years one of great masterpieces of action cinema from anywhere in the world, feature extensive use of CGI, though both are significantly more grounded in reality than Zu Warriors. The use of computers reopens an on-going tension in action cinema between effects and realism. Where does the pleasure in such films come from: the photographic record of remarkable physical displays by immensely skilled human beings, as in the work of the famously unaided Jackie Chan or from cinema’s ability to capture the impossible, whether through judicious use of wires, trampolines and under-cranked cameras (as in the work of Jet Li), or digital effects that have no basis in physical reality whatsoever? Cinema can be a mirror or an illusion, but is one ‘better’ than the other?

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