I first saw this Tsui Hark film a few years before I did a deep dive into Hong Kong cinema, and I watched it again at least one time after that. My take from those viewings was that it had some striking imagery and some fascinating female characters (I was particularly struck, for some reason, by the the Countess’ lieutenant, played fiercely by Hsia Kwan Li), but the narrative was practically incoherent to me, the humor too adolescent, and the finale too comicbooky. Coming back to it again many years later and having seen a lot more wuxia films in the meantime, the plot now makes a lot more sense to me, and things like the adolescent humor and comic book influence seem less pernicious. Its reputation is largely based on its innovative attempt to use Western-blockbuster style special effects in a wuxia story, but there are large claims made for its political perspective too.
The political commentary that critics find in the film hits the ground running, as the action opens in a classic wuxia setting of conflict and civil war between multiple color-coded clans. Yuen Biao is a soldier in one clan who is given contradicting orders by two different commanders, who both order him killed when he can’t decide between the two. The analog with a divided and paralyzed China seems pretty straightforward. What I hadn’t really picked up on before is that once the exiled Yuen reaches the mythical Zu mountain and meets the swordsman who will become his master, the swordsman immediately confronts a monk who is also battling evil on the mountain, and the two masters fall into conflict. The political divisions thus extend even into the realm of the enlightened or superior men. The divisions only increase once the men enter the fortress of the powerful Countess, whose army of female guards insist that the Countess will only heal the poisoned monk if arbitrary fate decrees it. There are no alliances here, only power and prerogatives. Everybody views everybody else with distrust, and evil grows in the fractures between political groups.
Unfortunately I think a lot of this fairly sophisticated politics is more or less thrown out the window in the end when Yuen and the monk’s disciple shrug off the conflicts of the older generation and find a literal unification of will in order to wield the Twin Swords against Evil. This is an especially comicbooky approach to problems of power, and it doesn’t help that it’s depicted with some of the film’s cheesiest special effects. The generational aspect is interesting, however, and there’s still a bit of punk attitude in the younger men’s criticism of their elders’ failings. One of the appeals of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain is its brash, punk attitude.
Another thing I hadn’t picked up on before is the element of parody or metafiction in the film.This is most evident in a couple of passing jokes on color schemes, the first early on when Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, who are from two warring clans but who decide the fight is stupid and, when they run into more color coded clans wanting to fight, make a knowing crack about how at least the colors make it easy to identify which clan is which. Later when Yuen, the monk’s disciple, and one of the Countess’ soldiers find a demi-god named Heaven’s Blade who guards the border of evil, the demi-god makes a joke about how everybody knows you can tell who’s good and who’s evil by whether they’re wearing black and white. As in the other films by Tsui that I’ve been viewing lately, there are a lot of tonal shifts in the film, and these kinds of mocking self-references don’t prevent him from earnestly depicting standard genre fare such as super swords or sneering demons. Tsui is able to play the genre elements to the hilt while mocking them at the same time, although maybe the mockery does undercut any attempts at a typical tragic-heroic wuxia sensibility, such as in the Countess’ self-sacrifice in the name of love.
More disruptive of the serious vein of the film, to my sensibility, is the depiction of evil as, well, Evil. The forces fighting on the side of good are actually fragmented and conflicted in interesting ways, but the demonic forces are pretty much straight up pure Evil, as far as I can tell. The moral of the story is that the forces on the side of good need to get their ship in order or the forces of evil will win, but one side effect is that the demonic characters are basically one-note and dull. Not that Tsui doesn’t find some fun and interesting ways to depict them visually, but the one-dimensional approach to the problem of evil undercuts any serious moral point Tsui might be trying to make. This is a problem with a lot of genre fantasy stories, but then again it may also indicate that the film was primarily aimed at adolescents.
There are signs of more interesting films to come, and as so often in these early Tsui films the main thing is the way he handles the female characters. From the very first time I saw this film, which I believe was before I knew who she was, I was riveted by the appearance of Brigitte Lin as the Countess/Ice Queen. The story really cranks up a notch when the boys enter the Countess’ magnificently ornamental fortress. Lin is always a great screen presence, and her thinly-drawn character benefits from her ability to project enormous poise, reserve, and grace — the latter of which is underlined with the curlicues of the diaphanous shawl that she swirls around herself like a banner. Not to mention the lovely curl of hair decorating her cheek. As I mentioned earlier, Hsia Kwan Li also made a powerful impression on me in what is a traditional wuxia role of the fierce, scowling warrior woman. Her only focus in life is the safety of the Countess — unlike the Countess, who allows herself to be distracted by a man, which is also the case of Moon Lee’s soldier character.
Lee’s Mu Sang is a character I originally didn’t think much of because she’s introduced with some silly, slapstick-level scenes in which she tries in various ways to humiliate the two boy disciples. These are actually the low comedy version of what Hsia Kwan Lee is doing: exerting control over the men who intrude into the women’s well-regulated domain. When the fortress is destroyed by the rapidly expanding forces of evil, Mu Sang makes common cause with the two boys in their disgust with the disunity of their elders. They become a heroic trio on a quest into the evil zone, trying to save the day. Ultimately she’s left behind to deal with a world turned upside down while the boys fly off to wield the Twin Swords, but they can only do so under the guidance of yet another powerful goddess figure, Li I Chi, who we were told in a blip of exposition earlier stole the Twin Swords from one of the male gods in order to study how they work. She’s the one who teaches the boys how to unify their wills.
So Zu features four major female characters who are still secondary to the boys but point the way to the powerful, central female characters in such films as Peking Opera Blues and Green Snake. Tsui would give Brigitte Lin some of her greatest roles.
Well, there are a lot of great touches in Zu, despite all its flaws, and the monkish bare feet of the Countess and her army are just one. It flies along at breakneck speed, apparently cramming quite a bit of Lee Sau-Man’s huge serial novel into just over 95 minutes. Hm, I’ve just discovered that there’s a longer “international” cut of the film, although it’s still only 112 minutes. Which reminds me that it’s just a shame that Tsui’s films aren’t being better cared for in their representation on home video, and from what I’ve read aren’t well-preserved on film either. My DVD is an old non-anamorphic release from Hong Kong’s Universe label, and I can’t see that there’s been any release of it since then. Can that really be true? Why aren’t his films being lovingly restored and presented in deluxe editions? Perhaps because he’s still largely viewed as a showman who makes entertainments and spectacles, or because the Hong Kong film industry has long considered films to be a disposable product. Maybe in the case of Zu, it’s because it was a box office flop. But it’s gained at least a cult reputation since then, so the neglect makes no sense to me. Who wouldn’t want to see a nice restoration of Brigitte Lin’s divine feet?