Tsui Hark’s groundbreaking 1983 wuxia epic ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN recently got a fancy new blu-ray release, inspiring me to finally get around to seeing it. In fact I watched it right before I watched IRON MONKEY for the first time, so that was a hell of a night of filling in (some of) my Hong Kong cinema blind spots.
I can’t say I liked ZU as much as IRON MONKEY, because I can’t say I followed it as well. Like much of Tsui’s work it has a haphazard, is-he-making-this-up-as-he-goes-along? feel to the storytelling, which here I think is a combination of his sensibilities and the difficulty of someone from another culture (me) processing a DUNE-like cinematic condensation of a famous 1932 Chinese fantasy novel steeped in mythology I don’t necessarily have a context for. But I can say that it’s an enjoyable fun house ride, an absolute visual delight, and a key missing link in my understanding of Tsui’s filmography. Everything else he’s made makes more sense after seeing this. I guess it’s kinda like if I’d seen all the modern Spielberg movies and then saw E.T. and JAWS for the first time.
I’m not gonna do well with a plot summary, but here’s an attempt. Yuen Biao (GAME OF DEATH) stars as a soldier who gets screwed over during a battle by contradictory orders from two commanders, runs for his life, falls off a cliff and gets lost in a cave that’s a vortex between life and death, so he encounters ghosts and magical shit. He gets rescued by a master swordsman (Adam Cheng, SEVEN WARRIORS) and begs to become his pupil (like Chewie owing a life debt to Han), following him into a cave full of skulls, where they witness motherfuckin NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER director Corey Yuen (also the choreographer) and his cult raising a Blood Demon. So they join up with an Abbot (Damian Lau, AH KAM) and his student Yi Chen (Mang Hoi, YES, MADAM!) and begin a quest to combine The Purple Sword of Heaven and the Green Sword of Earth to save the world from the Blood Demon. You know how it is.
Along the way there are many (to me) seemingly random encounters and new friends. But you could say the same of THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE NEVERENDING STORY and so many other fantasies. That’s kind of the format. They meet a countess (Brigitte Lin, POLICE STORY) and her teenage bodyguard (Moon Lee, THE PROTECTOR), for example. They’re cool, but my favorite is when the great Sammo Hung (who has already appeared briefly as a different character) shows up as Long Brows, an old wizard who literally has eyebrows so long they reach out like tentacles and wrestle people from a distance. During peace time they just kind of stick up like giant antenna too big to keep in the frame. And he has a weapon called the Sky Mirror that’s like a glowing disc. There’s another old white-haired sorcerer guy with the badass name Heaven’s Blade (Norman Chu, Flying Chimpanzee from WING CHUN), who they find sprawling on a large metal ball suspended by giant chains. Does not seem like the most comfortable living arrangement in my opinion, but that guy’s pretty cool too.
I’m happy to report that there was a joke that made me laugh pretty hard, having to do with a a monk being tempted to eat fish (somebody tells him it doesn’t count as meat). Then he gets caught by the Abbot and pretends to be protecting the precious life of a fish skeleton.
I’ve read some nice things about the story and message of ZU, but for me on this first viewing I just had to let its imaginative world, intoxicating style, and overall berserkness wash over me. The shadowy realms they explore are frequently lit up with animated lightning bolts, energy beams, showers of sparks, and powerful blasts of fire that shoot out of hands. And there’s a pretty good amount of red smoke, or smoke with a red light behind it. I love the horror atmosphere of the cave, with glowing-eyed zombies, giant chains, glowing embers. I love all the detailed carvings and statues in the various chambers and temples.
It’s far from the first wire-fu movie, but I think ZU helped popularize the trope of beings who can hop around like crickets, gracefully leaping and flipping, casually perching on top of statues, pillars and peaks. That seems to be pretty normal in this world, and then the more powerful people have abilities like shooting lasers out of their hands or spinning ribbons that glow blue and toss wads of energy that swim around like tadpoles.
ZU is so impressive because it keeps going to new places and introducing new characters, and so much of its reality seems so meticulously hand-crafted, from the establishing shots with beautiful miniature models like a Toho movie, to the enormous temple sets, and the soundstages simulating the outdoors, with artificial skies and moons. But then there are some scenes on actual beaches, or next to a scenic waterfall, and it seems of a piece, somehow.
It’s all so appealing to the eyeballs, but the most visually novel scenes are when they’re flying in the sky. The compositing and backdrops look so painterly, sometimes collage-like. They do Superman poses and streak across the sky like comets with their glowing auras, halos and force field bubbles, and battle with magical powers we couldn’t understand. (It’s a Zu thing.)
Obviously there were no Hollywood movies in 1983 that looked quite like this, but it’s also much more elaborate than other Hong Kong films of the era, a parade of cinematic trickery and analog visual effects wizardry that just keeps pulling out new technique after new technique for 97 minutes. Tsui in fact pulled it off by reaching out to some Americans. Visual effects supervisor Arnie Wong had worked on TRON and HEAVY METAL, and visual effects consultants included Robert Blalack (ILM co-founder, had an Oscar for STAR WARS), Peter Kuran (main title sequence of THE THING), Tama Takahashi (matte photography on BLADE RUNNER), and John Scheele (effects technical supervisor on TRON). One of the effects animators, Chris Casady, is another STAR WARS veteran, and I was excited to notice that he was later the animation director of the Beastie Boys “Shadrach” video. Hell of a career there.
Production designer/art director William Chang later worked on most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies as art director, costume designer and editor.
This was Tsui’s fifth movie as a director. Now he’s somewhere in the forties. In 2001 he did sort of a remake called ZU WARRIORS, a.k.a. THE LEGEND OF ZU. I haven’t seen that one yet but I remember it being hyped up as (and having a mixed reception for) being a CG-era take on wuxia. Since then he’s elaborated on that concept in movies including FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE, the DETECTIVE DEE series, and THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA (which he wrote and produced, and Yuen Woo-ping directed). DUNJIA especially captures that crazy ZU vibe for me on a story level, and is more sophisticated in the way the actors, stunt people and cameras can move around, but yeah, there is something much more warm and impressive about the hand-made artificiality of ZU vs. the computer-based artificiality of DUNJIA. This movie is a real treasure.
But that’s not to say Tsui hasn’t evolved and improved. To me DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS (2018) captures a similar spirit but looks even cooler, has more martial arts and a much stronger narrative. I know I mention that one too often but I don’t think it’s well known enough, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in quite a few years, so I’m gonna keep doing it.
I wish I’d had the blu-ray longer so I could’ve taken screengrabs – the photos here aren’t really my favorites, just the random stills I could find around. As often happens with these releases I’ve seen transfer connoisseurs on Twitter saying that the coloring on this new Shout Factory blu-ray of ZU is not how it was meant to look. I’m always skeptical of these claims of the correct way to present a given movie, since they’re usually based on previous VHS or DVD transfers that weren’t necessarily definitive either. But there are a couple scenes here where the wires are as plain as day, and I believe that’s not just high definition clarity, but other tricks for hiding wires being lost in color grade translation. So they may have a point on this one.
But the thing is, it looks absolutely gorgeous. Unless Tsui complains I got no problem with it.
Anyway, I’m so glad these Hong Kong cinema milestones are finally getting love from the blu-ray companies, and that I’ve been able to see some of them. Damn, I gotta find more classics to sit on for decades and then bust out two in a row. I wonder if Huey Lewis knew about this when he made that “I Want a New Drug” song?