Monday, March 11, 2013

Zu Warriors / Shu shan zheng zhuan (Hong Kong, 2001)

Possibly driven by the unique international success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000 / trailer), famed Hong Kong director and producer Hark Tsui followed up his pyrokinetic gangster drama Time and Tide (2000 / trailer) by returning to the field of supernatural fantasy with Zu Warriors, a remake of his 1983 supernatural fantasy film Xin shu shan jian ke / Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountains (trailer). After its successful home release and along with the fabulous veiled ode to communist China Hero (2002 / trailer), Miramax picked this film up for US distribution and then sat on it for years. Unlike Hero, however, which was finally theatrically released uncut in 2004, Miramax trimmed Zu Warriors by a full 25 of its 104 minutes before sending it straight to DVD in 2005 — an ignoble treatment to what is definitely an intriguing and effective film.
Most of what landed on the cutting room floor was plot and character development (and possibly bloody effects), so the DVD version is definitely action and spectacle heavy but light on continuity and characterization. The result is a film in which a lot seems missing, but that rips you along on a visually exciting and thrilling adventure that makes virtually no sense but is still enjoyable. Zu Warriors is perhaps one of the first Hong Kong action flicks to replace all the old school special effects and matte shots and sets with state-of-the-art computer effects and animation, and as a result it does miss the enjoyable innocence and earthiness of both the original version from 1983 and other earlier masterpieces like A Chinese Ghost Story I (1987 / trailer) and II (1990 / trailer), but as obvious (and sometimes as dated) as the computer animation now is, it still packs a punch.
On a certain level Zu Warriors reminded us of our favorite Ray Harryhausen films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958 / trailer), Jason and the Argonauts (1963 / trailer), or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973 / trailer), but whereas Harryhausen used stop-motion animation in his bloodless fantasy films to wow us, Hark Tsui uses the computer. In other words the same intention is there — to cast a cinematic but magical spell — but the technology has changed. And like in many of the Harryhausen films, the motivations and actions of the characters in Zu Warriors are not always 100% understandable and the plot evidences a few holes, but also like many of Harryhausen's films, the cinematic magic makes it easy to overlook and ignore such lackings. Also, cut as Zu Warriors is, for all its fight scenes it features very little physical blood (let's ignore the blood cave, which is really not that gory in any event) and thus often feels very much like a kiddy film — which is what those occidental fantasy classics of yesterday mentioned above very much were and still are.
And also like those films, Zu Warriors is a fantasy set in a time long, long, long, long ago at a place far, far, far, far away — in this case here, a magical realm between the heavens and earth above the Zu Mountains inhabited by a race of immortals (that seem to die a lot) called the Omei. As in real life, it takes but one bad seed to ruin everything, and in this case it is the evil immortal named Amnesia (sometimes seen in the form of Kelly Lin, of Sparrow [2008 / trailer]), who wants to destroy both her/his fellow immortals as well as all mortals and rule the wreckage. This threat of total annihilation is met by the brave warriors King Sky (Ekin Cheng of The Vampire Effect [2003] and Tokyo Raiders [2000]), who still suffers emotionally from the death of his master and lover Enigma (Cecilia Cheung), and White Eyebrows (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and his disciples, all of whom have magical weapons of which they have differing levels of mastery...
The plot of Zu Warriors, like most Asian fantasies, is typically all over the place and intricate and full of characters of varying importance, some of whom you hardly register, but the excessiveness of the scattered plot and underdeveloped characters are for a change perhaps more the work of Miramax cuts than Tsui Hark. An example of just how extreme the editing is can perhaps be best seen in the character Joy, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang (of House of Flying Daggers [2004 / trailer]). She plays a human, a mortal, who gets drawn into the war between the immortals and is ostensibly the narrator of the film — but her role is cut down to such a minimum of scenes that her presence is literally unnecessary. Whenever she shows up, it looks as if she is coming from somewhere or just did something important (at one point she is even obviously a leader of an army of humans) but the viewer never knows what. And what about her inferred relationship with one of the immortals, who also agitates in the background to such an extent that it almost shocks whenever he suddenly reappears and frowns? She, like many characters, remains both a cipher and underused; but worse, she also comes across as unneeded — an odd predicament for a character that is supposed to function as a narrator (which she does all of three minutes). Had Miramax cut the film a bit more, they probably could've presented a viable version totally without any mortal characters... which might have made more sense.
Be as it may, the cut version is the one generally available in the West and is the one at hand here — and for all the flaws added by Miramax and any possible flaws that were there in the original version, the film we saw had us mesmerized as much as the Harryhausen films mesmerized us as kids. The mythic battle is full of thrilling visuals and the pace is often breathtaking — the film is anything but boring. And if the motivations and actions sometimes appear strange, write it off to the fact that the characters all move on a higher plane that we can't understand, a fact mirrored in all the inane and pseudo-philosophical exchanges that are sprouted by all characters at any given time. 
But in the end, who really needs to understand more than good vs. evil when the events fly by so fast and the color and images are such a resplendent excess? On a visual level, Zu Warriors amazes and entertains the viewer to such an extent that eventually the story hardly really seems to matter any more. Evil is evil and good is good, so if nothing else you know who the good guys are, and all the cinematic eye candy dished on top only makes the film all the more killer cool. 
Final verdict: Cut to shreds but gorgeous, inane and borderline incoherent but excellently made, Zu Warriors is a highly entertaining film and still worth watching in its butchered form — but if an uncut English-language version ever comes out, we would definitely give it a gander, too.

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