Review for Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain
I like my kung-fu movies grounded in reality, which given how kung-fu movies have traditionally been made, with post-dubbing, under-cranked cameras, wire-work and dance like choreography, is a pretty strange statement to make. But I’ve always gravitated more towards the Police Stories of the world, and not the Crouching Tigers. It’s when magic and gravity defying wire-work takes centre stage that I tend to tune out. That’s why I avoided Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain back when it was ubiquitous on DVD, trailed on practically every release from Hong Kong Legends. But I always had a niggle in the back of my mind, that I was missing out on a Tsui Hark classic. Besides, there aren’t too many movies in my collection where the third dragon, Yuen Biao has a starring role. Maybe it’s another Iceman Cometh. Now that Eureka Entertainment are giving it the Blu-ray HD treatment, I can take the time to find out.
It’s a time when eleven kingdoms are at war, and scout Ti Ming-Chi has the unfortunate position of serving in an army with two commanders. Trying to reconcile conflicting orders results in a death sentence from both, which is the perfect time to desert. He takes refuge in a cave in the mountains, although there are some vengeful ghosts who aren’t keen on his presence. He’s rescued by a passing scholar dressed in white. Ti Ming-Chi demands to know why such a hero isn’t out in the world, putting an end to the war, but the hero and his allies have bigger problems. There is a demon cult abroad in the mountains, and a blood demon looking for a way back into the world, no matter whose body it possesses.
Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain comes in 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p format, with optional DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono Cantonese and 2.0 Stereo English, with English subtitles. When comparing it to the International Cut in the extras, you can see that the main feature on the disc has come up a treat, clear and sharp, with excellent detail in brighter scenes, and no sign of compression, aliasing or banding. It’s a properly filmic transfer with fair contrast, and a natural level of film grain, but darker scenes suffer a little with softness and a comparative drop in detail.
I stuck with the Cantonese audio and was happy with the experience, post-dubbed as it commonly was. I did get a 1940s Saturday serial vibe from the incidental music, and kept expecting Flash Gordon to show up, but generally the audio presentation is fine. At the time, this film was one of the most expensive Golden Harvest movies made, no doubt for the fantasy storyline, and the plethora of special effects, but seen nearly forty years on, it’s a very studio bound film, the wires are always visible, the sets and the forced perspective tricks are obvious, and the special effects haven’t held up at all well. You have to suspend your disbelief more than the stunt co-ordinators suspended the actors to buy into the film.
The disc boots straight to a static menu, and from the main menu you have the choice of playing the film with the Alternate Opening Credits, although you can watch them separately from within the extras (1:58).
The disc’s first print run will come with a 24-page booklet, which includes an extensive text on the film from writer James Oliver, peppered with plenty of production and art images from the film.
There is a select scene commentary from Tony Rayns on the film, which runs to 68:53.
Zu: Time Warrior – Export Cut lasts 97:14 and is the international version of the film, cutting down the story, eliminating the opening battle sequence, and adding a present day framing device, which sees Yuen Biao’s present day character sent back in time to take part in these fantastic events. It’s presented in 1080p 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono English, and the state of the print is nowhere near on par with the main feature, looking soft and un-restored.
Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show: Tsui Hark lasts 22:06, and is just the half of the episode that concentrated on the Hong Kong filmmaker.
There is a more recent interview with Tsui Hark on the disc which lasts 61:23, and was made earlier this year.
The rest of the interviews are vintage featurettes, probably from the HKL disc, with Yuen Biao (12:29), Moon Lee (21:16), and Mang Hoi (17:40).
Finally there is the Hong Kong Trailer (3:30).
All are presented in 1080p format, up-scaled where necessary. I had some issues with the audio piped through my home cinema with the extras, as it was out of sync, but this wasn’t a problem when I watched the disc through the TV speakers.
I’m going to use the traditional reviewers’ ‘get out of jail free card’ here, and simply say that if you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain. If you’re new to this genre, it helps to read the booklet first, which places the film in context. Today it seems that this genre of fantasy wuxia is ubiquitous, but back in 1983, it was practically unknown in Hong Kong, and it was the Hollywood explosion of sci-fi fantasy films like Star Wars and Superman that spurred Tsui Hark into bringing that level of fantasy and visual effects to Hong Kong... well, not quite the same level. But watching the film last night, I very much got a Lord of the Rings vibe from it, and not just because of the fantasy elements. It is very much a linear narrative, a quest format which takes the characters, practically on rails, from A to B to C and so on. It’s not the most intellectually taxing of films.
For me, this film was straight from the Crouching Tiger school of Hong Kong filmmaking, where the culturally specific elements of the story went straight over my head, the sheer weight of exposition describing each scene made the film feel burdensome, and the ridiculous, gravity defying, weightlessness of the stunt and action sequences just left me cold. There has to be a character or story focused reason for people to be walking on walls or ceilings and Inception this isn’t. I did enjoy the opening sequence, the war and the battles, where the kung fu was more traditional, and the comparative simplicity of eleven armies clashing was easier to understand, especially as there is a great comic byplay between Yuen Biao’s character, and one of Sammo Hung’s characters, rival soldiers from two different armies who both have desertion in mind, hard to do in the middle of a free-for-all battle. This sequence is completely excised from the Export Cut. But once the film shifted into the realm of the magical and mystical, my interest faded.
Quite frankly, I feel I needed to be drunk to best appreciate Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain, or at least I should have first watched it in my early twenties, when my threshold for bizarre fantasy films was a lot higher. I don’t think I saw ‘eyebrow-fu’ in the spirit that it was intended when I saw it for the first time last night. I may not be the ideal audience for this film, but I am well aware that fans have been eagerly awaiting Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain to make its debut in high definition, and I can at least say that the technical presentation, as well as the feast of extra features on this Eureka release will do more than satisfy.