Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠, Tsui Hark, 1983)

“I never imagined that the righteous would not only refuse to unite, but also be incapable of action” laments a reluctant soldier realising there are no heroes coming to the rescue in Tsui Hark’s SFX-laden fantasy wuxia, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠). Inspired by the work of Huanzhulouzhu (Li Shoumin), Tsui’s feudal fable marked a departure from the more “realistic” swordplay movies which were popular at the time harking back to an earlier era of fantastic adventures which drew inspiration from traditional Chinese folklore. It was also, however, an attempt to prove that Hong Kong could rival Hollywood in the post-Star Wars world, blending what might now be viewed as fairly camp but then cutting-edge special effects with classic wuxia action. 

Accordingly, after a brief voice over, Tsui opens with a world in chaos in which several factions are currently vying for hegemony over the hotly contested, mystical and mountainous terrain of Shu. Lowly retainer Ti Ming-Chi (Yuen Biao) has been tasked with delivering a message regarding troop movements to his superiors, but there is a difference of opinion in the chain of command as to whether to attack by land or sea. Placed in an impossible position, Ming-Chi eventually sees himself pledge to obey both captains, only for infighting to emerge within the group forcing him to flee for his life which is how he encounters “Fatty” (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a soldier from a rival faction and discovers, quite ironically, that they are from neighbouring villages which makes their rivalry all the more ridiculous. In the course of his attempt to escape, Ming-Chi falls into a mountain crevasse and finds himself entering a mysterious cave which takes him to another world in which he becomes similarly embroiled in a war against the evil Demon Cult which apparently practices child sacrifice and then uses the bones as a kind of magical armour. 

A reluctant soldier, Ming-Chi finds himself captivated by the “Great Hero” Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and determines to become his disciple while the pair form an uneasy alliance with a pair of similarly matched Buddhist monks, master Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) and his assistant I-Chen (Mang Hoi), also hot on the trail of the Demon Cult. Finding this world also confusing, he is nevertheless reassured by I-Chen’s simple explanation “they’re bad, we’re good” as the two masters face off against the Demon Lord, but comes to discover it’s not quite all as black and white as it seems and this world too is torn apart by chaos and disorder because “the hearts of men are so corrupt.” Ming-Chi begs Ting Yin to use his “peerless martial arts skills” to “save mankind”, but Ting Yin cynically tells him his best course of action is to retreat into the mountains and avoid human society because “neither you nor I have the ability to bring about change”. 

Yet Ming-Chi remains pure of heart, certain that “as long as everyone puts in the effort, peace can be restored under heaven”. “Teach me martial arts and once I’ve mastered it, I can fight oppression, help the weak, and save the masses” he pleads, but Ting Yin once again refuses him. In fact, in one of the later SFX sequences, Ting Yin will “transfer” his martial arts knowledge near instantly via a laying on of hands assisted by some elaborate prosthetics which see Ming-Chi’s body warp and bubble to accept it. Nevertheless, the lesson that Ming-Chi begins to learn, bonding with fellow assistant I-Chen who ignored his master’s petty parting words to bid him goodbye to hope they meet again along the way, is that the masters care only for themselves and are no better than the warring nobles from his own lands, obsessed with their rival sects and ideologies. If they want to save the world they’ll have to save themselves through mutual solidarity in pursuit of their goal, tracking down a pair of mystical swords which are the only way to end the demonic threat for good. 

There might of course be an added dimension to this allegory in the Hong Kong of 1983 which is perhaps also beginning to feel like disputed territory coveted by duplicitous elites who fight amongst themselves while ordinary people suffer, but Tsui is in any case more interested in zany action and excuses to employ zeitgeisty special effects making full use of the technology of the day from lasers to animation along with in-camera stunts to recreate his epic fantasy world in which old men can keep evil at bay for as long as 49 days using nothing but their powerfully hairy eyebrows and a fancy mirror. With small roles for Brigitte Lin and Moon Lee as an ice queen with a warm heart presiding over an all female palace and her spiky guard respectively, Tsui’s bonkers fairytale moves on at a glorious, confusing pace but is nevertheless filled with warmth and humanity as the goodhearted heroes attempt to head off the folly of war with human solidarity. 


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Eureka release trailer (english subtitles)

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Tsui Hark, 2018)

Detective Dee four heavenlu kings posterMaybe we could use a Detective Dee or two in this bold new age of fake news and powerful ideologies. Tsui Hark at least finds another case for the famed Tang Dynasty detective though this time one which sees him at the centre of a conspiracy, a bug in the system which must be squashed in order to pave the way for someone else’s revolution. The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Rénjié zhī Sìtiānwáng) of the title (no, sadly Andy Lau has not returned with a few of his friends in tow) refers to the four Buddhist deities which ought to tip us off to the kind of story this is as personal desires, of one sort or another, threaten to destabilise a state.

At the end of the previous film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, Dee (Mark Chao) was “rewarded” with a place in the inspectorate and guardianship of the Dragon Taming Mace. However, scheming consort Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is not particularly happy about her husband’s grand gesture and still has her doubts about Dee. Claiming that she fears such a powerful weapon/symbol being in the hands of someone who may betray the crown, Wu instructs Dee’s Sworn Brother and head of the Justice department Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) to retrieve the Mace at any cost. Yuchi is reassured that Dee is not in danger and so agrees to work alongside Wu’s handpicked troop of “magical” crooks (who have actually been hired to take care of Dee to stop him messing up Wu’s grand plan). Needless to say all is not as it seems and Wu has fallen under the influence of nefarious forces who are merely using her lust for power as a convenient mechanism for facilitating their own agenda of revenge for a past era’s betrayal and oppression.

Dee’s methods are, more or less, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, granting him almost supernatural powers of foresight and observation though this time he is not occupied with one specific case so much as solving the mystery of the hidden insurrection within the Tang. The Mace may seem like a MacGuffin but its power is real and eventually holds the key to defeating the forces of chaos which threaten to bring down the state. Wu’s quartet of “Taoist” magical mercenaries are quickly exposed as expert wielders of tricks and trinkets rather than supernaturally charged avengers, but the state can’t help being captivated by the “magic” which finally puts paid to their ambition and is rocked by the power of the false images which continue to assault their senses.

Tellingly the big bad here is a foreign cult which makes extensive use of “hypnosis”, strange potions, and smokescreens in order to create the illusion of magic. Illusion, however, is as good as or perhaps better than the truth when it comes to political manipulation. The cult’s powers apparently aided the creation of the Tang state but once they were no longer needed, they found themselves cast out, tortured, and humiliated. Unsurprisingly they want their revenge and will settle for nothing less than the humiliating fall of the nation they helped to build.

Good old fashioned deduction and rationality are useless in the battle to free infected minds from the hypnotic power of fake news perfectly tailored to embrace one’s darker instincts. Wu, secretly or otherwise, lusts for power of her own and was easily manipulated by the promise of support in her campaign to seize the throne. Meanwhile, the leader of the Wind Warriors is infected with an intense desire for violence and killing to ease his deep seated rage over the misuse of his people. The answer is, of course, Buddhism. Life is too beautiful to be marred by hate while the act of forgiveness is the ultimate show of strength. Nevertheless, Tsui abandons Dee’s cool, analytical approach for a strangely spiritual final battle in which the fake news machines wielded by the Wind Warriors are pitted against the intense calm of a finely tuned mind (and the slightly moodier one of a giant white gorilla). Hell is full of suffering, Dee reminds the monk, enlightenment will have to wait. Perhaps “enlightenment” is merely another selfish desire won at the expense of blocking out the calls for help from those in need.

The Dragon Taming Mace is the ultimate symbol of justice, literally able to cut through the spell of illusion to expose the truth below. Wu had reason to fear it, even if she was not in the position to understand why. Dee is indeed a worthy guardian and unsullied soul, committed to the pursuit of compassionate justice wherever he goes even if he does so as a representative of the authority. Wu may have regained her senses, but that doesn’t mean she’s cured of the underlying causes of her possession as the large statue of Guan Yin which looks mysteriously like her seems to prove. Dee may have another mystery on his hands, but in any case his work is far from done in a land of intrigue and duplicity in which justice hangs by a slippery thread.


Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Find out where it’s playing near you via the official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Mermaid (美人鱼, Stephen Chow, 2016)

MermaidStephen Chow unexpectedly became a mini phenomenon with that rarest of beasts – a foreign language comedy that proved a mainstream crossover hit, in the form of the double punch that was Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. However, his once ascendant star has been in retrograde ever since when it comes to screens outside of Asia. The surprise worldwide theatrical release of this latest film, The Mermaid (美人鱼, Mei Ren Yu), might be about to change all that.

Loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, Chow paints a world of consumerism in overdrive as heartless capitalists fall over themselves to destroy the beauty of the natural world to buy even more flashy status symbols even though they only make them even more miserable. After opening with some newsreel footage of mass deforestation and a bloody dolphin massacre, Chow shows us the natural world exploited in a different way as a group of visitors visit an “exotic animal show” which includes such wonders as a live tiger (actually a pet dog with stripes pained on its fur), a “Batman” (with fried chicken for ears), and, crucially a “Mermaid” (a fried fish with a doll’s head on the top).

We’re then introduced to rich playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) who lives life large in a giant western style estate surrounded by gold digging dollybirds. He’s bought some “surprisingly well priced land” to use in a reclamation project, only the problem is it’s technically a nature reserve. His underlings have come up with a scheme to frighten away the wildlife with sonar devices so they can destroy the area of outstanding natural beauty in peace. However, they didn’t know about the colony of Merpeople hiding out there who have a serious problem with Liu and have dispatched one of their number, Shan (Jelly Lin), to assassinate him!

Predictably, the assassination plot does not all go to plan with often hilarious results. Like Chow’s other movies, the main spine of the narrative is a romantic comedy in which a foolish and arrogant man is made to realise his own weaknesses through finally noticing a woman he previously had no interest in. This time Shan turns up looking like a crazy lady with her bizarre makeup and fake mermaid outfit which gets her instantly thrown out of Liu’s place though she does succeed in giving him her phone number. Usually, Liu isn’t the type to call back but he gets goaded into it by mistake and then his henchman actually bring Shan to his office where she fails at assassinating him first with poison and then with sea urchins. By this time the course is set as the pair bond during their macabre meet-cute with Liu becoming attracted to Shan’s otherworldliness and she to the goodness that might be buried inside him.

Liu, it seems, experienced extreme poverty in his childhood and so now cares only about making money. Or says he does, his depressing solo karaoke dances to a hit pop song with the chorus “no one understands my loneliness” might tell a different story. Being super rich is actually kind of boring and everyone he meets only cares about his money so meeting Shan (who is predominantly interested in killing him) proves refreshing. Nevertheless, money also becomes an anchor dragging you down, even if Liu starts to come over to the Merpeople’s point of view (particularly after testing out those sonar devices on his own ears) his associates aren’t likely to agree.

It all goes a bit dark towards the end – wildlife massacres and kidnappings for “scientific research” which seems to include things like vivisection and live experimentation not to mention the intentional eradication of the entire living environment of these hitherto hidden creatures all the while preaching about scientific progress and a desire for understanding. Chow is many things but subtle has never been one of them so he lays his environmental message on with a trowel but the rest of the movie is so big anyway that he gets away with it (and in style).

Light and bright and colourful, The Mermaid is another characteristically madcap effort from Chow who packs in all the absurdist humour one could wish for plus a decent dose of sight gags and good old fashioned slapstick. It has to be said that the quality of the CGI (of which there is an awful lot in the film) is, on the whole, woeful, though somehow this just ends up adding to its charms as another facet of its self effacing wackiness. A hilarious return to form from Chow who has been away for far too long, The Mermaid looks set to continue its enormous box office success by becoming one of the director’s most fondly remembered efforts.


The Mermaid is currently in UK cinemas but the distributors have gone down the Bollywood route of chasing the diaspora audience only (as RogerEbert.com discovered during the US release) and not engaging with the regular film press in any way, shape, or form. Therefore there has been almost no coverage of the cinema screenings in the non-Chinese media. Here’s a list of the surprisingly high number of UK cinemas screening the film courtesy of my friends at Eastern Kicks so check it out because it very likely could be playing at a cinema near you!

 

The Good News or the Bad News? Stoker, the Grandmasters and Show Box Media

I’m an efficient sort of person generally (not that you could tell from this blog), so I like to start with good news – after all good news doesn’t usually require any further action than being pleased, does it?

With that in mind, it seems there’s a new UK specific poster for Park Chan-wook’s upcoming English language movie Stoker

Stoker UK poster

 

We’ve still got the pencil work from the earlier poster, which I loved, plus a strangely creepy headshot of Wasikowka. What is that reflected in her eyes? someone standing in front of window/doorway/unexplained bright lights? I’m really looking forward to seeing this film – I’d be looking forward to the new Park Chan-wook anyway but this seems very promising to me especially as it’s inspired by one of my favourite Hitchcock movies – Shadow of a Doubt.

If you’ve never seen Shadow of a Doubt I’d really recommend you check it out; it seems to fall into the lesser known Hitchcocks for some reason – well the middle group, it’s much better known than something like MR& Mrs Smith but it’s not quite up there with Vertigo and Psycho when people think of his films. Joseph Cotten is really fantastic in it and it’s kind of an early look and the evils lurking in suburbia. Here’s a trailer for those still unconvinced

 

Now, I warned you, there are some clouds on the horizon. I leave the bad news until last so that I can figure out what to do about it right away but all I can do now is feel sad, it’s a zero sum game this time round. As I speculated here Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmasters is indeed delayed once more and will now move its opening date to 8th January from 18th December. Oh well, it wouldn’t be a Wong Kar-wai movie without several thousand delays – we all just have to prove how worthy we are by being willing to wait, yes?

and your final bit of bad news? It appears Showbox media, who own CineAsia – primary distributor for Asian action cinema in the UK, have gone into administration. The warning signs were there, they seemed to have stopped communicating and updating their websites and had yet to announce any future release plans for the next few months/next year; they’d also apparently dispensed with Bey Logan whose commentaries on CineAsia’s releases had been a big selling point for UK fans. This has happened before and a solution was found, so maybe it’s not quite over yet but it certainly doesn’t look good. From the above report it seems their strategy of throwing everything they had at the supermarket buyers, licensing films which were likely to appeal to that market at those prices, was not as sustainable as some people had believed. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite CineAsia releases – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Whatever happens let’s just hope films such as this can still find their way over to the UK market!