Monday, July 4, 2011

Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983)

The previous few movies I recommended are relatively new and thus hard to find in North America. Thus, this week we turn to Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which you can find on DVD practically anywhere. This is the film that not only established Tsui Hark’s reputation but also influenced American filmmakers like John Carpenter (Big Trouble in Little China) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead).

Not to be mistaken for the CGI-muddled 2001 remake, this action-comedy-horror-romance-satire introduced wuxia fantasy to many of us western fans. If you aren’t braced for its breakneck speed and everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, it can seem overwhelming with its quick shifts in tone and genre. But if you’re in the right mood, preferably late at night with a group of friends and a case of cold beer, Zu is hard to beat for sheer fun.

In response to American blockbusters like Star Wars, Hark fills the screen with special effects. Only instead of laser beams, his characters shoot bolts of magic energy or entangle their foes with long, prehensile eyebrows. The effects include a rough approximation of lightsabers and Sith lightning, for what it’s worth, but it’s when Zu doesn’t resemble its American influence that it’s the most fun.

You needn’t know anything about Chinese history to understand the satire of war in the brief first act. Acrobatic Blue Army scout Ti (Yuen Biao) flees a death sentence for agreeing with both of his generals because they disagree with each other. He blunders into a Red Army soldier (Sammo Hung), but they soon find themselves allied against forces of four more armies: Orange, Green, Yellow, and Teal. Ti cries, “What a colorful war!”

Escaping the fray, Ti falls down a cliff that turns out to be the proverbial rabbit hole. He enters the world of the Magic Mountain. There he encounters a swordsman who wields black and white magic swords, whom he begs to accept him as an apprentice to fight the evil in the world. They soon meet a mystical monk and his young apprentice. The proud and jaded veterans squabble, leaving the altruistic young men to form the friendship that allows them to cooperate against a powerful Blood Demon. Only the moon mirror of a venerable warrior known as Longbrows (also Sammo Hung) can hold the monster at bay, and that only for 49 days. Before that time is up, the heroes must find another pair of magic swords (green and purple this time), the only weapons that can slay the Blood Demon.

Along with the haunted jars containing black-flag ghosts, evil cultists, cymbal-wielding monks, and animated skulls, our heroes face slow-acting poison, shape-changing adversaries, flying statues, and deadly blood crows. What follows is just about the closest thing to a fantasy roleplaying campaign you’ll ever see on screen, but be prepared for me to say similar things about other movies I'll recommend soon. Much of the story takes place in what can only be described as a vast dungeon complex, leaving only when the group must seek magical healing from the beauteous Countess (Brigitte Lin) in her temple among the clouds. Naturally, one of the Countess’s beautiful acolytes joins the smitten young men for the third act, which culminates in a day-glow spectacle of matte effects worthy of a 1970s Saturday-morning children’s TV program.

Despite the sometimes silly visuals and the confused deus ex machina of the finale, the fun up to that point is more than worth the journey as long as you can withstand the whiplash of a wild ride.

While I can't think of a specific scene that informed a chapter of Master of Devils, Zu's "everything all the time" approach absolutely influenced my choice of showing different tones of adventure through the eyes of three different point-of-view characters, including moments of horror, romance, humor, and in virtually every chapter a heaping dose of action. Even so, after screening Zu again, how I wish I'd made room for Longbrows!

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