A young soldier finds himself in way over his head in this adaptation of Huanzhulouzhu’s fantasy novel.
“They’re bad and we’re good. Get it?”
Of the famed Three Dragons of the Peking Opera School, Yuen Biao is arguably the most overlooked. Not to say that he hasn’t had a lot of success in his long and varied career, but compared to his brothers Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, he’s definitely seen the least amount of headlining roles, often pushed towards supporting characters or cameos. Thing is, Biao, when given half a chance, can really deliver. So much so that in this film he was even able to push a fellow Dragon to the sidelines.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain tells the story of Di Ming-qi (Yuen Biao), a soldier (and deserter) during the Tang Dynasty’s Uprising of the Five Barbarians. During his attempts to escape the endless bloodshed, he ends up in the titular mountain, and on the wrong side of what the Wikipedia summary called a vampire. He’s rescued by a mage called Ding Yin (Adam Cheng) and from that point on Ming-qi swears to become his disciple. Ding Yin is on a quest to vanquish demons, and is joined by two monks with the same mission. They’re looking for two halves of a powerful sword that can eliminate all demons from the world.
The story itself is fairly standard Ancient China wuxia fare. There’s an attempt to link the ongoing war with increased demon activity, which isn’t bad as a concept but ultimately the story and the themes – which are there just so the film has a reason for doing what it does – isn’t why anyone’s watching. And honestly I’m fine with that. The plot is really there to serve a single purpose: to give Tsui Hark and excuse to have people zipping about on wires and fire bolts of electricity at one another. Frankly that sounds like a reason as good as any other.
Hark’s visual flare is in full effect here, and every scene is dripping in atmosphere: from the green-blue walls of the Celestial Palace to the perpetually gloomy, moonlit tops of the mountain. None of it looks remotely real, but that’s a part of the charm that some modern wuxia films seem to miss. People are flying about defying gravity and the laws of physics constantly: your disbelief is as suspended as each martial artist is, and the fakeness emphasises the fantasy nature and the Chinese Opera feeling that the film exudes. The story, of a man just stumbling upon these demon hunting monks and getting swept up in something he barely understands helps with the feeling that we’re watching a fable.
On top of that the action is as exhilarating and energetic as it is incomprehensible (even if it does undermine Biao’s martial arts expertise). It’s full of fast edits and filmmaking that does nothing to tie one shot to the other. Zu is a colourful spectacle, mixing in scenes of high-flying shenanigans with outright horrorshow imagery and had me write the words “the demon essence is using baby skulls to protect itself from a man with very long eyebrows”. Combine Yuen Biao’s criminally underrated performance, a few other choice scene-stealing characters as well as a terrifying Twin Peaks flying fabric demon and you have something that’s pure wuxia through and through, and a lot of fun.
Verdict: Full of iconic moments and baffling but great action and effects, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a film that knows what it wants to be, and has a good time doing it.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is playing as part of the Chinese Visual Festival’s Focus Hong Kong. Check it, and everything else on offer, here.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Incoherent moments: Lots/10
Weapon of choice: Big long ribbons. Or big long eyebrows.
Chi or Qi: Subs have it both ways. Who knows!
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)
Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Huanzhulouzhu (novel), Tsui Hark
Yuen Biao – Di Ming-qi
Adam Cheng – Ding Yin
Brigitte Lin – Ice Queen
Damian Lau – Xiao Ru
Mang Hoi – Yi Zhen
Judy Ongg – Lady Li I-chi
Norman Chui – Heaven’s Blade
Ha Kwong-li – Ji Wu-shuang
Corey Yuen – Devil Disciple Leader
Sammo Hung – Chang Mei