Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain Review
After his excellent Butterfly Murders and the genre defying We Are Going To Eat You, Tsui Hark took on the phenonemally difficult project of this film. Requiring production values and a volume of special effects unknown to Hong Kong cinema up until then, Hark's endless imagination and Golden Harvest's pockets were put to the test with this fantastical tale. The shoot took the unfeasibly long time, for Hong Kong cinema, of a year and the film, when released, achieved little success in its homeland. To give the film a second wind it was re-edited for the western market with a new opening 30 minutes which set the film in the modern day America and re-cast the tale as an epic kung fu love story. This new set from Joy Sales/Fortune Star features the original version and those added scenes as an extra.
Zu Warriors concerns a reluctant fifth century soldier, who has wandered away from the endless wars in the land of Zu and finds himself entering a cave host to some demons. He is rescued from the demon's clutches by a magical swordsman, Master Ding, and follows the swordsman into battles against the evil Blood Demon. En-route, they form an uneasy alliance with two monks, but one of the monks becomes poisoned by the Blood Demon. The companions must seek to cure the monk or the whole world will fall under the Blood Demon's apocalypse. The young soldier becomes a disciple to Ding and gains special powers, and they travel to seek the help of the Mistress of the Ice Flame. It becomes clear that only a grand battle and the unity of the monk and soldier can save the day. Zu Warriors bears the hallmarks of early Hark films in that it is almost too clever for its own good. The sheer number of ideas and shifts of direction present in the film are almost too much for the viewer to absorb . As a director, Hark's intellectual energy is incredible and his efforts to create modern day parallels to his fantastical stories is one particular joy of his films. In Zu Warriors, the opening narration can be seen to draw an implicit comparison with 1980's pre handover Hong Kong when the land of Zu is described as the area of China “last to submit”.
The film's ambition is unquestionable and it is only with technological advances made since in special effects that the idle spectator may take what was achieved here for granted. The scale of some of the wire-fu choreography and matte effects is astounding, in one scene in the Ice Fortress there are almost 100 wires being manipulated at once to give the impression of the whole cast flying. Similarly, given that the energy bursts of the swordsman's powers are created through matte work the sheer number of frames of the film that had to be manipulated is mind-boggling. Comparing the action of Zu Warriors with more modern day wire-fu fests like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, you may find more sophistication in the latter but Hark's efforts are just so creative that they need to be praised for the trailblazing they are.
Any casual viewer of the film is likely to recognise the size and complexity of some of the sets used, the huge amount of fight choreography(courtesy of Corey Yuen and Yuen Biao), and the aforementioned wire-fu and the raft of special effects, but for the more dedicated, Zu Warriors is a cinematic experience that you can become immersed in. The world of this magical fight against evil is meticulously realised and jaw-droppingly immense. Like the blockbusters that it wanted to compete against, the film does suffer a little in the story department and some of the ideas don't cross cultures well causing the odd giggle from modern audiences. The central story of Biao as the soldier thrown into this magical world is entertaining but all the to's and fro's of the story can prove a little difficult to follow and this is my third attempt at keeping up and I feel I just about got it! This is also a function of Hark's managing the film around some of his bigger stars' availability which gives confusing dual appeareances for both Lin and Hung which are no too convincingly explained away by the story. The characters in the story are dwarfed by the scale around them and consequently the only two characters to be filled out are the soldier and the young monk played by Mang Hoi. Other characters come and go and the roles for Brigitte Lin, Adam Cheng and Damian Lau are really extended cameos. Sammo Hung even gets two cameos, the second is an almost unrecognisable turn as Chang Mei who keeps the Blood Demon at bay with his powerful eyebrows – there is meant to be humour in this but it's the kind of thing that might have new viewers guffawing at the film rather than with it. The scenes between Brigitte Lin and Adam Cheng are examples of Hark's genius and all the more remarkable for the impressive settings, set design and acting. The two actors' poise and belief in what must have been terribly complicated scenes to shoot mean that potentially laughable moments are played for great dramatic and romantic effect.
To sum up, the film is a testament to Hark's hyperactive brilliance. He achieves so much on screen that it is difficult to assimiliate it all and he clearly revels in setting himself impossible challenges only to find amazing solutions. The making of this film itself is one such impossible challenge and its very existence is crucial because it showed the world that it wasn't only Hollywood that could do epic adventure properly. As an adventure film itself you may find yourself comparing it less favourably with other Asian wire-fu romances like A Chinese Ghost Story or The Bride With White Hair, but they had the advantage of following the path of Hark's experiments. Zu Warriors is an essential milestone in Hong Kong cinema, a film that the recent resurgence in Wu Xia owes a lot to on a technical level. Thoroughly recommended.
Fortune Star have given the film the same presentation as their recent Bullet in the Head release, a two disc set encased in a cardboard dustsleeve with the film taking a dual layer disc on its own and the extras on a separate single layer disc. The presentation is quite beautiful with the classy pale blue images on the sleeve and printed on the discs themselves. The first disc of the film is 75% used and the feature is presented in anamorphic widescreen at the ratio of 1.85:1. The basic print used for the transfer does look worn and long shots look a little soft with the transfer here but the image does generally look excellent to my eyes even though there are some scratches and lines visible during the feature. I have tried to include some screencaps that you can compare against those of Dave's previous review on this site of the Hong Kong Legends disc, please try to disregard some of the compression artefacts on these stills. I feel that the new presentation has less noise in the transfer, looks to be less cropped around the whole frame(look at the bits of Sammo's ear – present in the new release but not on the HKL), and seems brighter(look at the clear white of the sky on the new release). Putting the compression artefacts in the still to one side, the difference is still apparent and I prefer the new transfer for its brighter fuller picture.
The sound options are less impressive here with all the dolby digital tracks sounding bass laden and a little muddled as a result. There is separation to the various channels but it's all so bottomy that the mix becomes quite distracting. With this defect it's unsurprising that the DTS track sounds best as the bass is far more restrained and the surround effects are clearer as a result. The distribution of sound effects is competently done but whilst effects may be in the right place spatially they don't sound properly integrated. I don't know if the mono tracks are downmixes but I would guess that the Cantonese 2.0 is as it suffers from the same muddy bass as the surround tracks.
The second disc in the set is a single layer disc containing extras. This includes the whole 29 minute alternative opening mentioned earlier and the short alternative ending as well. The Time Warriors footage is boneheaded and tries to recast the film as a love story crossed with Bruce Lee goes to college. There may be a certain guilty pleasure value to imagining just how crackers the film seemed with the further element of reincarnation thrown into the fantastical mix, however these scenes simply stink the place out. The scenes are dubbed in English to add to the whole cackhandedness of them. Yuen Biao is interviewed properly about the film and this extra is well worth having for the insight it gives into Hark's way of working and the scale of this production, it also confirms the notion that Hark was making it up as he went along in a lot of his decision making - examples of this include the plot being based round actor's availability and scenes left unfinished and finally completed once Hark worked out how to do them. The disc has a reissue trailer and an original one which boasts of the special effects comparing them to Star Wars, three Fortune Star trailers for other releases are included too. The box states that there are deleted scenes but they are nowhere to be found on the disc and a photogallery come slideshow completes the extras. Despite the extra disc, the extras don't include the interviews and commentary from the Hong Kong Legends release.
Zu Warriors should be watched on the biggest screen you can find, I had previously seen the movie on an average sized TV but here watching on a projector it really came to life. This new release does have a better transfer than the previous release and coped well with being beamed, and possibly this added quality along with Biao's interview may move you to replace your current copy. Any self respecting Asian film fan should own the movie.