Nothing could have prepared audiences for Tsui Hark’s breakthrough neo-wuxia film ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN upon its debut in 1983. Its mixture of Chinese myth, political allegory, western-style special effects and traditional (though wire assisted) martial arts – while owing much to the films which came before – looked entirely different than the films being released at that time. Even with the increasing budgets and scope of the kung-fu films being produced by Golden Harvest, this was an entirely different animal. Its success, despite a near incomprehensible plot, would lead to a revolution in martial arts fantasy films, which would eventually give us A CHINESE GHOST STORY (produced by Hark), THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (directed by Ronny Yu) and Jet Li’s SWORDSMAN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA films.
It also marked the arrival of a major new creative force in Hong Kong film-making. While already having made his mark with the bizarre science fiction fantasy film THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS (1979), and his cannibal horror film WE’RE GOING TO EAT YOU (1980), Hark truly showed off his chops – and his experience studying film in the United States – with ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. With his reputation as a challenging, eclectic film-maker confirmed, he would go on to be one of the most influential figures in Hong Kong films through the 1980s and 90s, producing John Woo’s breakthrough gangster film A BETTER TOMORROW, directing the amazing PEKING OPERA BLUES (1986) and eventually masterminding the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA kung-fu film series. While his attempts to break through into the U.S. market were abbreviated – he directed the Jean-Claude Van Damme films DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK OFF – he continues to be a tremendously popular and significant force in Hong Kong film-making.
Ok, I’m going to do my best to describe the plot of ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, but I’ll be forgiven for occasionally getting a bit muddy with the detail. It’s an awfully complicated storyline, filled with elements of myth and legend, and is really much more enjoyable if you simply let the astounding visuals wash over you. It’s not that it’s incomprehensible – at heart you generally know who the good guys are, and what their general motivations are – but the details can be a tad hard to grasp.
So, first lets tackle the title. The Zu in question are a range of mountains in the ancient Bazu region of Western China that were of great strategic importance during times of war. They were the first place of unrest, and tended to be the last place to get settled. They also have a mysterious side in Chinese legends which suggest a race of immortal heroes make their home around them. ZU takes place during the 5th century, where a young soldier from the West Zu army named Ti Ming Chi returns from a scouting mission to find his leaders arguing about whether they should attack their enemies from the East via water or land. Unsure who to follow, Ti Ming is instead attacked by his comrades – which sends him running off.
Attempting to cross a nearby lake, the boat owner refuses to bring him because he has a sword pointed at his back belonging to Chang Mei (Sammo Hung), a soldier from the Eastern army. The two bicker at first before realizing they come from similar parts of the country. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a battle between two other colorful armies, forcing them to pretend to fight each other before eventually faking their deaths in the hope of escaping. They almost do escape, but Chang Mei accidentally knocks Ti Ming Chi down a hill while trying to fight off some opposing soldiers, which ends with Chang being captured.
All fairly sensible so far. Some poking fun at the futility of war. Obvious parallels with the tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China. Some action. Some comedy. Well, things are rapidly going to get awfully strange.
A storm begins to rage, sending Ti Ming Chi into a nearby temple. He’s almost immediately attacked by a group of strange flying Jawa-like creatures with glowing eyes. Overwhelmed, Ti Ming is rescued by a swordsman dressed in white who shows off some impressive (supernatural) skills to fend off the creatures. Impressed, Ti Ming Chi attempts to get the swordsman (named Ding Yin, and played by Adam Cheng) to use his powers to help the world of man plagued by destruction, wars and death. Ding Yin replies that man has brought misery upon himself, and that Ti Ming should escape from the temple before he becomes as equally corrupted as the creatures he faced. With that, Ding Yin vanishes. Thinking it’s a test, Ti Ming – in classic Kung-Fu student style – decides to wait him out.
Night falls, and some strange lights appear. Ti Ming Chi finds himself walking on the bones and skulls of young boys, before being attacked by animated “blood crows”. Ding Yin saves him once again, but the two are no match for the creatures – at least until they are joined by dickhead monk Hiu Yu (of Kwan-Leun) and his dopey student Yat Jan (Mang Hoi) who help fight off the crows. Ding Yin and Hiu Yu have a very adversarial relationship, but the four all decide to take on the Evil Sect (located at the Sek-Lam Ancient Temple) and the soon encounter these Evil Disciples – who are more than happy to put on an exhibition for their visitors.
Yat Jan and Ti Ming Chi watch from afar as the Evil Sect (led by Corey Yuen!) have a mystical battle with Ding Yin and Hiu Yu. The leader of the evil sect weilds electricity in a similar way to the lightning guy in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA – a film obviously influenced by this one. Accidentally pulled into the fray, Ti Ming Chi almost falls to his doom, but is rescued by a spinning blade thrown by Ding Yin. The evil sect escapes, and the blame game begins. The monks blame Ding Yin for their misfortune, and the group agrees to part ways permanently.
It appears this will be the end of the tale, but we’re only, like, a half hour into the movie. Ti Ming Chi gets upset at the disappearance of his powerful friends, but they soon return – weaponless – upon the appearance of a strange figure who appears to be made of red cloth. Showing off some of the coolest (and most memorable) special effects in the film, the heroes attack this creature – apparently a physical embodiment of evil – but before the creature escapes from Ding Yin’s flying swords it manages to strike and poison Hiu Yu. Ding Yin attempts to heal (a resistant) Hiu Yu by transferring his chi to him, while Yat Jan and Ti Ming Chi are meant to stand guard outside. Ti Ming runs into the red cloth creature once again, but is assisted by the appearance of Cheung Mei (also played by Sammo Hung) – the founder of the Ngo-Mei school – who sports lengthy eyebrows, which occasionally link with Ti Ming Chi’s.
So, here’s the deal. The red cloth creature is a “blood demon”, and the poison in the monk’s heart will possess him entirely within ten days. However, the “essence” of the blood demon is trapped by Cheung Mei (and his eyebrows), though the creature surrounds himself with the skulls of young boys, and despite Cheung Mei’s use of the “sky mirror”, the rest of the group only have 49 days in which to find the twin swords taken by Lei Yikkei the Wonder Girl 18 years ago to a Tin-Ngoi-Tin cave where she practiced with the swords and meditated. Yeah, I know. It’s a ton of strange exposition. But all you really need to know is that the creature will escape and – assumably – destroy the world unless the gang can get these swords. Simple enough. But first they need to cure Hiu Yu’s poisoned state, which can only be done at Yiu-Chi-Sin fort – run by the mysterious Ice Queen (Brigitte Lin) and her ferocious female guards.
On the way to the fort we get some fish-related comedy, before the group see what appears to be an evil witch dressed all in red. Arriving at the fort, they get an icy (get it?) reception from the guards, who say that the Ice Queen only appears while the “immortal ice flame of the fort” burns, which is sometimes for a very short amount of time. I think. Ding Yin uses his magical skills to keep the flame alive until the Ice Queen appears, but when she does she appears to be the witch they encountered earlier – so they (stupidly) attack her. Ti Ming Chi is injured in the skirmish, and Ding Yin helps heal him via a massage that weirdly inflates parts of his body. The Ice Queen reluctantly agrees to help heal the still-poisoned Hiu Yu, though she exhausts herself in the process – leading her to faint. Ding Yin helps her, much to her embarrassment, and the two begin to develop an adversarial, but affectionate, relationship.
The precocious Yat Jan and Ti Ming Chi are curious about what’s going on inside the healing chamber (which they’ve been locked out of), so they try to find their way inside past the collection of female guards – particularly the head guard (Moon Lee), who has little patience for their nonsense. The entire group soon leaves the company of the fort, and soon after Ding Yin offers Ti Ming Chi a sword to borrow. Excited by the gesture, Ti Ming Chi soon discovers that the sword has been poisoned by the red witch, and Ding Yin is rapidly affected by the possession that Hiu Yu was just cured of. How annoying. They all return to the fort to again get the Ice Queen’s help, but she’s been so weakened by their previous encounter that she can’t help. Instead, Ding Yin asks that she kill him – which she tries to do, but his possession takes hold, and he’s soon battling the room. The Ice Queen grabs him and pushes him inside a giant gong, which then explodes and freezes the entire room, with only Yat Jan, Ti Ming Chi and the Ice Queen’s head guard able to escape. *shrugs* I don’t write it, I just describe it.
Remember that bit at the beginning about having to get those twin swords to stop the evil that Cheung Mei was containing with his eyebrows and sky mirror? We’re back on that bit of plot now, as Ti Ming Chi remembers there’s only two weeks left to stop that evil from escaping, so the three head to Tin Dou peak to get the sword. Ti Ming Chi also gets a heck of a speech explaining how important it is for people to unite, and how much stronger they can fight against evil by being united. Makes sense to me.
At the peak the encounter the hairy Tin Dou, who has strapped himself to a rock between the border of heaven and hell, and has been working on keeping hell from escaping for over a century – watching as the battle between Gods and Demons raged. But now he’s getting old, and the evil force has begun to corrupt him. Suddenly, the now fully corrupt Ding Yin appears and dominates the group, but Ti Ming Chi fends him off with Ding’s own Chat Gik sword. The two eventually fall into the pit of hell, but Yat Jan overcomes his fear and cowardice to go in after him. While they fend off Ding Yin, they are trapped near the entrance to hell until Tin Dou sacrifices his life to help them escape. The two land in water, where Yat Jan once again proves himself by saving an unconscious Ti Ming Chi from drowning.
Suddenly the twin swords – purple and green – appear overhead, and the pair spot Lei Yikkei on a nearby peak. She, um, flies them through some really trippy visuals, and when they land they’re wearing what appear to be dresses. She explains that Cheung Mei’s time is almost up, and that the only way the swords can be combined is if they are wielded by swordsmen of the same heart and mind. Yat Jan and Ti Ming Chi have to be entirely united in order for their powers to be properly combined. How symbolic! Since the purple sword represents heaven, and the green sword represents the earth, their combination will create a state of perfect union.
In an odd gesture, Lei Yikkei combines herself into the two, so that she basically exists within them. Meanwhile the Ice Queen guard encounters the western and eastern armies from the beginning still fighting, but once things start going insane they end up working together to keep from falling into a pit. Unity! All Yat Jan and Ti Ming Chi have to do to stop the evil from erupting is to combine swords, but the still possessed Ding Yin shows up to stop them. Finally, the still frozen Ice Queen uses the last bit of her strength to kill Ding, the two combine their swords just as the evil is released, and the now released demon immediately explodes. The young people have achieved God-like powers, and they commit themselves to unite the people of earth against evil. Hooray.
Yeah, it’s trippy and weird, but also quite a bold statement at a time when Hong Kong’s future after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997 still seemed uncertain. It was a call to ease tensions between Hong Kong and mainland china, while remaining a rollicking, entertaining mix of flashy special effects and impressive action. While I’m certain I don’t fully grasp the complexities of the plot – so much is taken from ancient myths and legends – there’s no denying the energy of the visuals, and the confusing nature of the story-line rarely gets frustrating. Of course, while the action is impressive, it doesn’t fully take advantage of the physical gifts of the cast, and those coming in looking for stellar martial arts action may leave disappointed. While Tsui Hark would move on to making some fine martial arts films in his own right, this is much more a fantasy film than a traditional kung-fu movie.
Tsui Hark would regularly introduce fantasy elements into his films after the release of ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, and eventually returned to the material with his big-budget sequel/remake THE LEGEND OF ZU/ZU WARRIORS in 2001. Coming soon after the massive international success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, the film actually received an edited U.S. DVD release at the time since it similarly featured Zhang Ziyi and choreography from Yuen Woo Ping. Despite being CG-heavy, the film retains much of the unhinged mysticism of his original film, though the effects miss some of the charm of his earlier effort.
NEXT WEEK: THE PRODIGAL SON (1981)