In the West, Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain is best known for being a key influence on John Carpenter’s cult favourite Big Trouble in Little China. In the East – China & Hong Kong, specifically – it is part of an ancient story tradition dating back centuries called Xianxia – loosely translated as “Immortal Heroes”. A Xianxia story features Ghosts, Demons, Magic and Immortals, a world away from the martial arts cinema that made Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan household names. Xianxia has brought about Encounters of a Spooky Kind, Holy Flame of the Martial World, Mr Vampire, Legend of the Mountain, Detective Dee, Legendary TV show Monkey (and Dragonball) and the newly issued Zu Warriors and the Magic Mountain on Eureka’s classic label.
In the Holy Flame of the Martial World, there is a scene in which the heroes fight animated metal Chinese letters (or characters), swords fly and their master laughs so forcefully he uses it as his primary weapon. That is the level which Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain is pitched, as such, I will attempt to synopsise a movie that I struggled to follow, even on the 2nd viewing.
The movie takes place in 5th Century Western China when war ravages the land, our hero is Yuen Biao who as we meet is chased away from the frontline by his compatriots. After which he fights and becomes friends with a rival in Sammo Hung. Cornered, Biao ends up falling off a cliff where he becomes embroiled in cults, great heroes, demon blood and another character played by Sammo who uses his facial hair as a weapon. Within this, Biao’s character only wants to find a hero to help him stop the wanton and unnecessary bloodshed in the world of man. For his trouble, he gets involved in a demonic plot involving possession and godlike entities. Typing it up gives the impression of a simple plot, only that isn’t the case – Zu Warriors is the same brand of nonsensical phantasmagoria peddled by Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno.
Tsui Hark has a reputation for being a director who helms projects that value style way above substance and for the opening minutes, you’d be mistaken for thinking this is any number of Warring States Kung Fu Movie. Biao runs away from the military meets a man who in any other kung fu movie would be a compatriot, they live near each other but the war has demanded they treat each other as enemies. There’s a scene in which they are descended upon by all manner of competing armies, each in their colour-coded uniforms – a scene that is played for laughs with Sammo and Biao ducking, diving and playing possum to avoid the warring throng. Until this point, the film has been shot in the day in wide-open spaces, that is until Sammo mistakenly knocks his new pal off the end of a cliff and every aspect of Zu Warriors changes instantly.
This is where Tsui Hark the stylist comes out to play. From this point on, we are greeted by vivid sets and costumes (there’s a porcupine man in act three), seas of skulls, imposing and ominous mountainous valleys and other high fantasy trappings. The work of William Chang’s production crew is massively impressive, the crew have created a living breathing world that demands any viewer surrenders themselves to it. I brought up Susperia and Inferno for good reason, those are two films that make nary a lick of sense, instead, you just bring yourself and allow the overload to wash over you.
I’ll defend to the hilt the flamboyance of Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, as someone who has seen enough martial arts cinema to tire myself of it and back again as well as being a big advocate of Hong Kong, Korean and Japanese cinema – I have seen strange things. That being said, every defender has their limit. In a climactic scene, Yuen Biao and his brother in arms in everything from being a student to having fun at the expense of an all-female base, Mang Hoi, end the film looking like the love children of 1970s anime and K-pop.
Being a Xianxia, it means there is just as much traditional martial arts as there is flying heroes or swords. Both are superlative thanks to Bill Wong’s cinematography combined with the aforementioned production design, injecting colour, expressive costumes and concepts. Sometimes it’s such a feast for the eyes that you can’t help but feel over engorged, still, as far as problems go that isn’t a bad one.
There is an unfortunate byproduct of all this gorgeous visual fidelity stacked on top of the restoration on this Blu-ray. There is a clarity that just wasn’t present in the earlier Hong Kong Legends release, as such there are many shots involving people, swords or structures flying in which you can quite easily see the thick black wires used to suspend things in the air. There are two ways to take this. The first is to scoff at how cheap these shots look in this searing clarity. Or, secondly, you can judge the film on its own established levels. This, a film, in which an aged Sammo Hung subdues the demonic blood of a previously defeated demon with his beard just so happens to have visible wires in its aerial scenes. This is hardly enough to sink the Zu Warriors.
Just like Italian Horror isn’t for everyone, neither is Chinese Fantasy Action. The only way I can surmise how I feel about this new Eureka release is to explain my relationship with martial arts cinema. I have watched so many Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers movies that they all start to bleed into one, amorphous glob containing the faces of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Gordon Liu. Comparatively, Zu Warriors is the pinnacle of a style of Chinese cinema that will leave a deep impression on all who see it if only on the lashes of style and the uniqueness of the ideas it throws around with abandon. You will remember images, for years, even if the plot is nothing to write home about.
Eureka Classic releases tend to be quite thin on extras, not by choice, the movies that come from that label tend to be harder to gather extra features for thanks to a combination of age and obscurity. That isn’t true here. There’s the aforementioned 2K restoration which is as much of a blessing as it is a curse. The crowning glory, though, is a triple bill of features. There’s a new hour-long interview with the director filmed exclusively for this release. There’s a European cut called Zu: Warrior Time, that features a Wizard of Oz style wrap-around with Yuen Biao as a modern-day student transported back through time. And lastly, a Tsui Hark episode of Jonathan Ross’s Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show which displays a BFI-like attention to detail in digging in the archives for gold. As far as home labels and their renewed interest in Chinese genre and martial arts, this is one of the landmark releases even if I could barely follow any of it.
Great box art too.