Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
AKA: Zu: Time Warriors
Director: Tsui Hark
Stars: Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Moon Lee, Brigitte Lin
A young soldier (Yuen) grows tired of fighting and retreats into a cave, which happens to be a vortex between the land of the living and the dead. Eventually, the reluctant soldier embarks on a quest to obtain two magical swords needed to destroy the evil forces that have building up in the vortex and are threatening to destroy the world.
Zu is widely noted as Tsui Hark's first major film and one of the first modern Hong Kong movies to garner international intention (Evil Dead director Sam Raimi has noted in interviews that Zu was a major influence on his work). Some went so far as to dub Tsui the "Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong" and Zu an "Asian Star Wars." This is an interesting comparison, to be sure -- and it's not without some merit. Both films feature a reluctant hero, stories deeply rooted in their respective culture's mythology and, most importantly, there's a child-like feel to the movies.
That may sound a bit strange, but both Star Wars and Zu presnt their stories in such a wide-eyed way, one gets a certain kind of feeling from them that most other films can't match. Zu especially stands out in the world of Hong Kong films, where most characters are composed of shades of gray. The battle in Zu is simplistic -- good versus evil. When Yuen begins to get confused as to what's going on, another character simply says, "We're the good guys, they're the bad guys, understand?" Perhaps that's why Zu remains a fan favorite in Hong Kong, and why a sequel could be released almost twenty years after the original film.
However, like Star Wars, when one takes a critical eye to Zu, some flaws are revealed, especially after almost twenty years. The acting isn't that great, the plot -- dense with Chinese mythology -- may tend to lose Western viewers. Also, the special effects (some of which were done by some of the same people who worked on Star Wars) look dated and can seem a bit cheesy to modern viewers weaned on special effects-heavy films such as The Storm Riders. It also seems to show in Zu that Tsui didn't have the high level of control over all aspects of mise-en-scene that Tsui would later show on movies such as Once Upon a Time in China. Some parts suffer from somewhat choppy camerawork and editing. It's nothing horrible, but it is noticeable.
Nevertheless, Zu marks a milestone in the history of Hong Kong film history that any serious fan should watch at least once. The fact that it's a very enjoyable movie with some of the most inventive ideas put to celluoid doesn't hurt matters either.
Note: after the HK premiere of Zu, Tsui found that the script was changed without his permission and omitted some 50 shots he originally intended. Tsui was dissatisfied with the HK version and so he sought out some investors so he could film additional footage for the movie's international release, Zu: Time Warriors. The new footage comes in the forms of bookends for the film, where Yuen Biao is a modern-day fencer, with the bulk of the movie being a dream sequence after he is knocked out during a competition. The dubbed dialogue changes the story line somewhat from a "good versus evil" story to more of a romance, with Yuen pursuing Moon Lee's character. Tai Seng's VHS version of Zu is actually this version, even though it is titled Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.
A review of the DVD for this movie can be found here
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This DVD is available for purchase at www.hkflix.com