Xin shu shan jian ke (Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain), Tsui Hark’s explosive fantasy epic, was made and released during an equally dynamic period of Hong Kong history. This dynamism also defines its complex and sometimes baffling narrative. Clashes of opposites characterise this high-powered reworking of the wuxia genre as Tsui plays with many of the ideas encompassed by Deng Xiaoping’s “One country, two systems” vision of reunified China in the early 1980s; an ethos of reunification which would see Hong Kong and mainland China coexist peacefully whilst governed by two very different economic and political systems. In 1983, the year of the film’s release, Hong Kong’s territorial status was changed from being a British crown colony to a dependent territory whilst formal negotiations between the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom were gathering serious momentum as the two countries prepared for the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in 1997. Tsui applies the confusion, excitement and tension of this momentous period of his homeland’s history to every aspect of Zu: mythology, characterisation, art direction, gender, and genre play. The end result is a dazzlingly postmodern mix of Eastern cinematic traditions, Hollywood special effects, comic book aesthetics, and ironic self-reflexivity.
The tension between these opposing forces can be felt within a few minutes of the film’s opening, highlighting what Andrew Schroeder describes as “an almost too-perfect allegory of Hong Kong’s difficult position in between British and Chinese masters” (1). We are introduced to Ti Ming Chi (Biao Yuen – also one of the choreographers employed by the film), a character who cannot decide who to obey when his two commanders order him to launch opposing attack strategies on their enemies. In his confusion, he refuses to obey both of them, is made an outlaw and is forced to flee from his own Blue army. In his rush to escape he comes into contact with Fat Man (Sammo Hung), a soldier from the opposing Red forces. The allegory is then reframed as the two are forced to forget their differences and work together when they come under attack from a mutual enemy (the Yellows). This kind of triangular conflict repeats itself again and again throughout the film. It is fitting that the three primary colours are used as the building blocks of what will build onto a more complex palate, both literally and thematically, as the film moves along.
Colour is an essential component of Zu’s visual narrative and is used in a spectacularly calculated and stylised manner to symbolise the conflicts on screen. Colours rarely appear as shades in Zu. Like the comic books Tsui loved so much as a youngster, Zu’s art direction, headed by William Chang (later to become a key collaborator with Wong Kar-wai), utilises bold blocks of colour which always denote something beyond the immediately readable. The combination of colours is also used to heighten the many clashes between characters, be they human or otherworldly. If it was possible to miss any of these colour-based signifiers, Tsui’s skillful inclusion of snappy, self-reflexive dialogue reigns in any ambiguity, even going so far as to include lines like “bad guys wear black, good guys wear white – try to keep up!” (between a confused Ti Ming-Chi and his new companions) in the script.
Zu’s astonishing special effects – groundbreaking within the context of Hong Kong cinema – were a literal collaboration between East and West, as Tsui employed the services of several Hollywood special effects maestros who had previously worked on the likes of the Star Wars series and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). The complex wirework so central to wuxia body-effects was miraculously kept virtually out of sight by the use of meticulous lighting and set design and without the assistance of wire-removal post-production technology. The flying and fighting bodies, human and otherwise, were then augmented by the use of Hollywood-style visual displays of light and colour that were inserted during post-production. Although Tsui admits in retrospect (on the DVD commentary) that he was, ultimately, not very pleased with by these effects, preferring the physicality and authenticity of on-set action, this collaboration between the two countries’ formidable skill sets not only gave birth to a new era of Hong Kong visual effects but also worked to reinforce the themes of the film itself.
Adding to the clashes between army factions, between humans and supernatural beings and the overarching forces of Good and Evil, Tsui is careful to include the recurring motif of “sameness” amidst the chaos. In this way he illustrates (and somewhat overworks) the proposition that cooperation based on commonalities is the quickest path towards conflict resolution. But, more interestingly, it also points towards an internal conflict that suggests something more personal. Ting Yin (Adam Cheng), introduced as an emblematic good warrior, is forced to face an evil incarnation of himself and is later taken over by the forces of Evil entirely, screaming that the line between good and evil is so thin they have become one and the same. The two eventual heroes of the film, Ti Ming Chi and Yi Chen (Hoi Mang), are only able to defeat the Blood Demon when they become of the same mind, eventually being able to speak and think in unison. This amalgamation is catalysed by a similar union between Cheng Mai (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and the Countess (Brigitte Lin). And in yet another example, Tin Dou (Damian Lau) stands guard at the gateway between the Good and Evil Territories. He chains himself to a huge boulder for eternity, and is unable to resolve the internal conflict between the two forces. These constant, blurring oscillations between difference and similarity, as well as the repeated assertion that opposing forces actually come from the same place, could be read as Tsui’s way of navigating the internal conflicts brought about by Hong Kong’s evolving cultural identity both nationally and at a more individual level. It can then be said that the dizzying mythology, narrative complexity and intense frenetic energy that are generated by Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain reflect a complex but thrilling history of a nation’s cultural identity in the process of becoming.
Xin shu shan jian ke/Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983 Hong Kong 95 mins)
Prod Co: Golden Harvest Company Prod: Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho Dir: Tsui Hark Scr: Shui Chung Yuet Phot: Bill Wong Ed: Peter Cheung Art Dir: William Chang
Cast: Biao Yuen, Hoi Mang, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Adam Cheng, Brigitte Lin, Damian Lau, Moon Lee