Tsui Hark’s latest cinematic spectacular is based on an episode in Qu Bo’s 1957 novel, Tracks in a Snowy Forest, as filtered through the Peking Opera called Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Grady Hendrix’s review of Tsui’s film has a lot of great background on the novel and the opera. The gist of it is that these are Maoist works celebrating the struggles of the People’s Liberation Army to take control of the ravaged country after World War II. The episode adapted into the opera and the film concerns a platoon of PLA soldiers taking on a camp of bandits who are ensconced in an abandoned Japanese fortress built on Tiger Mountain. One of the PLA soldiers infiltrates the fortress as a spy.
This is a war movie, and it’s the kind of war movie that’s about a plucky band of outnumbered soldiers going up against a bigger, better armed group. The Taking of Tiger Mountain indulges in just about every formula you’d expect in such a movie, from the tragic deaths of beloved heroes to an orphaned child adopted by the soldiers to death-defying acts of derring-do involving ropes over a rocky abyss. There are reluctant villagers who don’t want to help the soldiers but come to love them. There are sudden revelations that threaten to expose the spy, who is engaged in a battle of wits with the wily bandit leader, Hawk (Tony Leung Kar-fai). There’s a brave nurse who falls in love with the stolid captain. There’s a scene of soldiers defecating in the snow, just like Raoul Walsh used to do in his Errol Flynn war films at Warner Bros.
Or maybe that’s just Tsui. Tsui deploys the formulas with great skill, and he builds up to the epic battle set-pieces with character development that makes the battles matter. As corny as much of it is, it’s also very exciting and vivid. The political set-up is complicated, if not convoluted, and some of the blink-and-you-miss-it exposition about the various factions reminded me of wuxia films of yore, as does some of the over-the-top characterization, especially of the bandits. Tsui makes it more nationalist than Maoist, but I’m not sure I see the subtle critique of communist self-congratulation that Grady Hendrix sees. Still, the framing story about a young Chinese man named Jimmy, studying in the US in the present, who becomes fascinated by the history behind the Peking Opera version of the story certainly is deployed to good effect to provide commentary on what an audience wants from stories, from history, from family, and from national pride. A lot of American reviewers seem to think that the coda in which Jimmy imagines a different climax to the story is Tsui flailing around trying to find the right ending, but that completely misses the playful depiction of the movie audience’s desire for something more spectacular and, as Hendrix points out, more heroic and self-aggrandizing.
This film builds on what Tsui has been doing as he makes the transition from Hong Kong genre provocateur to a creator of populist spectacles for mainland audiences. As much as I liked the two Detective Dee films, this one is the best of the lot so far. (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, on the other hand, was pretty dire.) The framing story gives Tsui an extra layer of complication to the shifting perspectives on outrageous events, so the flying debris and plummeting falls aren’t the only source of vertigo. The way the final title cards connect the story to the real people that Qu Bo’s novel was about is the final fillip in the narrative play, both grounding the overblown genre fantasy in history and subtly reminding us that in real life even heroes can’t overcome all odds.
I believe this is a Chinese New Year film, as it ends with a traditional Chinese New Year feast. It’s certainly an invigorating way to start the new year.
Also, let me just emphasize that you should read Grady Hendrix’s review. It’s full of chewy goodness.