Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain Review
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a movie that can claim to be a milestone in the evolution of Hong Kong cinema in that, like Star Wars in the Western World, the sheer quality and number of effects shots seen within the movie were rarely equalled for many years to come. While Zu was visually wowing Hong Kong audiences of its time it was also providing a great deal of entertainment due to its magical adventure story based on classic Chinese culture and the old favourite, the battle between good and evil. Director Tsui Hark developed the story for Zu Warriors along with several other writers basing the story on a classic Chinese novel about the Zu mountain range. After securing the funding from Golden Harvest studios Hark then went about selecting a fine cast of actors and luring American effects specialists to Hong Kong to help him create the many visual effects required for the final film. But enough about the movies evolution, just what is Zu all about?
Set in the fifth century Yuen Biao plays a young soldier (Dik Mingkei) fighting for the Eastern Zu army but as conflict ensues within his own camp Dik Mingkei flees from certain death and finds himself seeking cover in the nearby Zu Mountains, a location known to contain supernatural forces. No sooner than he finds a place to rest is he attacked by a mysterious entity that is fortunately soon dispelled by a mysterious swordsman, Ding Yin (played by Adam Cheng), who like many of the characters Dik Mingkei will meet on his adventures is a deity. After seeing the power that Ding Yin holds Dik Mingkei attempts to follow him and soon becomes involved in the quest to destroy the evil Blood Demon that is threatening to destroy the world.
Several other characters soon come to the forefront as Ding Yin and Dik Mingkei join forces with a powerful Zen Monk (Damian Lau) by the name of Hiu Yu and his student Yat Jan (Mang Hoi). Soon after they meet, a confrontation with the Blood Demon ensues and our heroes must seek out the beautiful 'Lady of the Fort' (Brigette Lin) as she is the only deity with the power to reverse the poison Hiu Yu contracted as a result of the battle. Other characters who are also pivotal to the story are Long Brows (Samo Hung), a deity of great power who withholds the Blood Demon while Dik Mingkei sets off to locate two mystical swords that can vanquish their enemy once and for all while dragged along for the ride quite unwillingly at first is one of the Lady of the Fort's guards who is portrayed by Moon Lee.
Essentially Zu is a fantastical magical adventure about the ongoing struggle between good and evil, and at the forefront of this struggle is Yuen Biao who as a human soon comes to realise we should not be relying on the powers of the gods but should unite together to overcome our foes. This fairly basic premise is combined with some quite heavy handed Chinese mythology that is bestowed upon the viewer through Yuen Biao's character who is himself uninitiated in the supernatural forces and is given the occasional monologue from other characters that updates both him and the audience as to where the film is headed. To lighten up the proceedings that may require a second viewing to fully appreciate is some of that trademark Hong Kong style comedy that you either love or hate (for the record I am quite taken with it) with one scene in particular where Biao is fishing in a quite unique manner guaranteed to at least raise a smile. The main draw for the majority of viewers will however be the frenetic action sequences that Zu has a healthy dose of.
Opening with some traditional martial arts and swordplay from Yuen Biao as he flees the Western Zu army we also see Samo Hung who takes part in some enjoyable if basic swordplay as he makes a great onscreen pairing with Biao in a second role as an Eastern Zu Army escapee. From this point onwards the onscreen action moves firmly into the realm of extreme wirework with characters flying around, controlling flying swords and bolts of energy and taking on various evil forces that manifest themselves in a variety of guises including spirits, blood bats and even by possessing other characters. In these sequences we are treated to a range of special effects that are now looking extremely dated but due to the nature of the film I actually found them to serve their purpose particularly well and taking into account the age of the effects (nearly 20-years old at the time of writing) I think any serious fan of cinema will be prepared to make allowances especially when the art direction of locations like the 'Fort' are still highly impressive even by today's standards.
Possibly the most endearing elements of Zu are not just the magical setting and the often well designed locations that match but the quality of acting talent that director Tsui Hark secured. The main roles fall to a trio of young talent including the gifted Yuen Biao who with Mang Hoi offers up a boyish charm in their roles as the students rather than masters of their fields, while the stunning Moon Lee makes a fine debut appearance as a cheeky but naive guardian of the Fort. The more mature talent onboard includes the seminal Samo Hung who takes on two parts, of which he will be most remembered as Long Brow while he is also joined by Adam Cheng and Brigette Lin who quite rightly take their places as deities in this movie and offer a wonderful sense of chemistry for their brief time onscreen together.
Controlling the cast and the many elements that make up Zu is of course director Tsui Hark who for his first effects heavy movie did an enviable job of creating a final picture that while not quite the classic you might think given the status the film holds is still a great achievement and one that offers up a highly enjoyable 90-minutes of entertainment. Not everything is quite right though, and that does not just mean the now dated effects as there are other more 'normal' elements of the film that you may find fault with. The already mentioned monologues that deliver a heavy load of information to the viewer can be seen as a sloppy method of updating the audience on the plots progression (even Biao does not look comfortable when Samo, as Long Brow, delivers one such monologue) while the complete disappearance of Samo as an Eastern Zu Army member only to make a sudden reappearance in the films final moments is also a huge irritation as it seems like, and most likely is an attempt to tie up a loose end. Another area that almost feels like an afterthought compared to the visual side of the movie is the at times extremely disappointing original score, which at the best of times is merely satisfactory given the scope of the film it accompanies. Moving past these points and the fact that less experienced Hong Kong moviegoers will more than likely need a second viewing to fully understand the proceedings, we are left with a film that quite rightly deserves its position as a Hong Kong Legend and is certainly far more enjoyable than many of its successors can claim to be.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is Region 2 & 4 Encoded.
As seems to be the case for the more popular titles that Hong Kong Legends have released (the Police Story films in particular spring to mind) the print sourced for Zu is not quite as pristine as we have come to expect with some occasionally visible marks present, the worst case of which are the brief appearance of several black vertical lines for a few seconds in the latter half of the film. Presented in its original 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement the overall quality of this transfer is of a high standard but there are a myriad of faults that can be picked upon. Detail levels are often not quite as high as I would like mostly due to the soft nature of several sequences in the film, but on the whole they are better than you might expect with the earlier battle sequences proving to be quite impressive. Black levels are consistently bold while colour definition is for the most part very good although the occasionally soft nature of the picture can dampen this effect. Another minor issue those with larger displays will notice is how some of the darker sequences of the film that also involve smoke effects can suffer from minor pixellation, although this is only a rare occurrence. One final point is the inclusion of some extremely minor Edge Enhancement that is mostly noticeable on background objects set against the night sky, but it is barely noticeable unless you are specifically looking for it. Despite these various issues with the print and transfer I highly doubt anyone will be disappointed with the overall quality of the final offering from HKL that presents the film in a manner that is pleasing to the eye, if not quite up to the high standards that have been set with near-reference titles such as Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Ninja in the Dragons Den.
The original Cantonese soundtrack is provided here as a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and as we have come to expect from Hong Kong Legends this is another fine effort. The track is in good condition with no signs of damage or hiss, while the remix created is subtle yet effective with clean dialogue provided for the most part via the centre speaker while the surround speakers take care of the films score (projecting it nicely around the soundstage) and the many sound effects, some of which (the sound of the ocean and the wind for example) are handled to good effect and utilise all four surround speakers to a reasonable degree. The LFE channel is also put to good (if minimal) use. Also present on this disc is an English Dub that is again presented in DD5.1 Surround and offers a similar experience (from what I sampled) to the Cantonese offering but for the majority of fans the dub track will be more of a novelty extra than anything else.
Of course you will also find optional English (and Dutch) subtitles that are presented in an easy to read white font and are as ever free of spelling and grammatical errors.
Hong Kong Cinema expert Bey Logan returns for another entertaining Audio Commentary and is this time joined by the films director Tsui Hark (and as anyone who has heard the audio commentary on Time and Tide will know, Hark speaks very good English). With Bey acting somewhat like an interviewer he guides us through the film while divulging snippets of information on varying aspects of the feature but for the most part asks Tsui Hark a question and allows him to answer. This makes for an interesting if slightly stilted commentary that reveals a number of stories regarding the production while subjects such as Harks renowned work persona and his thoughts on filmmaking are covered as is the topic of special effects in the films of today (including a nod towards Harks own recent efforts). Where this commentary fails somewhat in comparison to Bey's previous efforts is the lack of researched information about the production and its cast and crew that he usually delivers, and while Hark has many interesting stories to tell his slightly less articulate manner will probably have you attempt this commentary over a few sittings rather than in one go. Despite all this we are still presented with an informative and often entertaining track but I would have preferred say a second commentary with Bey Logan flying solo.
During the Audio Commentary we learn of a second print of Zu Warriors that contains newly filmed sections for the international market and was released in the US under the moniker of Time Warriors. Tsui Hark had no part in this version of the film and has never even seen the final product as he is "too scared" to do so! For the brave amongst you Hong Kong Legends have included the extra footage found on this rare release under a section called The Wizards Cave. After a brief text explanation of where this footage comes from you are provided with a choice of four sequences presented in the order they would be seen in this alternative cut of the film. Presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen with the English Dub (the only way this version of the film is available) the bulk of the extra 30-minutes of footage focuses on a wrap-around story that sees Yuen Biao and Moon Lee in a modern day setting where Biao suffers an accident and whilst in a coma, the events seen in the Hong Kong version of the film would take place. Apart from two extra fight sequences with Biao that are fairly well choreographed and of course superbly executed this extra footage is sadly of the quality you might expect from any Western butchering of foreign film titles. Still, the inclusion of this extra footage is more than welcome on this disc and makes for an interesting alternative to the more standard extra features that follow.
Featured in the Interview Gallery are Mang Hoi and Moon Lee. Presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with English subtitles both interviews run for a little over 20-minutes each and feature film clips of various Hong Kong Legends releases, including a sneak peek at their forthcoming release of The Prodigal Son. First in the interview chair is Mang Hoi who plays Yat Jan in Zu Warriors, and has previously been seen in the HKL release of Police Assassins. As well as discussing both films mentioned Mang Hoi has some interesting stories to tell from his upbringing at a Chinese opera school to his work in many fields of the industry (as an actor, action director and director) and also offers up his thoughts on the various figures of the Hong Kong Movie industry of the 1980s. Although an interesting watch this interview felt a little lightweight, especially when you follow it up with the excellent offering from the still stunning Moon Lee who discusses her time on Zu Warriors in great depth. Delivering many stories regarding the making of process and her own unusual circumstances while working on the film Moon Lee is very upbeat and quite animated which makes for an altogether more interesting and entertaining watch. Rounding up her interview Moon Lee explains that since leaving the film industry she has been pursuing a new ambition that is to bring her love of Chinese performing arts to a wider audience with a show entitled 'Action Musical', for which HKL have kindly provided some footage of and I must say looks like a thrilling experience.
The final extra features you will find on this disc are Trailers for Zu Warriors and forthcoming HKL releases. For Zu Warriors we are provided with both the Original Theatrical Trailer and the UK Promotional Trailer in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen and for a change the usually overlong Original Theatrical Trailer is worth a look as in this case it contains some brief behind-the-scenes footage from the film. Wrapping things up then you will see a change to the 'Other Titles' section of the disc that rather than containing the usual ten Trailers for currently available and forthcoming HKL releases this time only features previews of two forthcoming titles, in this case Tai Chi Boxer and Project A Platinum Edition, both of which are looking like superb releases based on these trailers.
Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a very entertaining mystical adventure title that deserves the status it has gained over the years as being a pivotal step in the evolution of Hong Kong Cinema and has fortunately been treated with the respect it deserves with this DVD from Hong Kong Legends. Therefore Zu Warriors comes recommended to any fan of the genre although those who generally do not enjoy films of this nature are unlikely to be converted by the now dated effects that need a more forgiving audience that is appreciative of the other qualities titles of this ilk have to offer.