Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-11-29
Summary: An adventure story for eveyone
“Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain” is a rollicking good time. It has just about everything an adventure story needs: a well defined line between good and evil (some of the action takes place at the boundary good forces and bad forces); a hero who goes through a series of trials that test both his ability and commitment to righteousness, and with whom the audience can easily identify; enough interplay between the characters so that they are human and not just allegorical symbols; supernatural beings, like the countess who can either cure a person infected by the Blood Demon or just freeze him in his tracks and excellent story telling throughout.

Yeun Biao is wonderful as Dik Ming Kei, a brave scout who runs afoul of bureaucratic infighting among the commanders of the West Zu army and who barely escapes with his life. In his journey he goes from being a crass and unsophisticated youth to a mature young leader who is prepared to accept the mantle of defending humanity against the forces of evil. This journey is the structure upon which the rest of the story hangs. While Yeun’s kung fu prowess isn’t on exhibit here, his athleticism and agility is—while there is plenty of wire work and other special effects he does a lot of leaping, tumbling and diving.

The special effects themselves hold up remarkably well and serve the story—very little is done just to show the effect, so one can easily forget that he is watching lightning from a thunderstorm light up the interior of a cave or that Sammo Hung’s eyebrows, all that is stopping ultimate evil from destroying the world look as if they couldn’t keep a chicken from crossing the road. Actually the thing that contains all this destructive power looks like a big rock that has sprouted shark fins—it isn’t very scary at all. The entire Long Brow versus the clump of villainy may have been played for laughs. Whatever the case, Tsui Hark makes sure that the effects fill the screen. Along with the almost frenetic editing that is part of his screen trademark the wall to wall effects keep things moving.

The plight of Dik Ming Kei who begins the movie as a scout for one of the several warring clans in 5th century China, becomes Ding Yan’s eager pupil and ends as one of the men who have temporarily conquered great evil, runs throughout the movie and helps to hold it together. In a very early scene Dik returns from a perilous intelligence mission against the enemy only to find that the two leaders of his army are at odds with each other and use his report as a pretense to turn against each other—and decide to kill Dik. Later after Ding Yan has consented to become Dik’s sifu Ding and Heaven’s Blade, his sometime colleague, sometime opponent repeat the contradictory instructions Dik got from the military clan leaders, one telling him to go, the other to stay.

Armed struggle by rival political factions, whether called clans or not, has been an unfortunate part of Chinese history. “Zu” may be commenting on that dolorous past—including as recently as the years long clash between the Kuomintang Army and the Peoples’ Liberation Army after World War II. That rock full of evil that Long Brows is keeping in check could be the Asian equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the horror that is visited on a country during civil war.

Bridgette Lin is excellent as the Princess who can cure just about anything. She was a young veteran of Hong Kong film, with credits for six movies a year for ten years before the cameras rolled on “Zu”. She still hadn’t completely developed the LOOK which he displayed to such frightening effect in movies like “Swordsman 2”, “Dragon Inn” and “The Bride with White Hair, but the beginnings were obviously there. Lin imbued her character with tremendous strength, intensity and righteousness. Moon Lee, in her second movie, played the chief guard of the Princess with audacity and verve. She was more than a match for the bumbling Dik and Yat Jan when they were trying to get to the Princess and was quite winning in her embarrassment when they surprised her and the rest of the female guards by dropping their trousers.

While some have correctly compared “Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain with the Star Wars saga, I think it is also akin to some of the great 19th century adventure novels that I found enthralling as a child. “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped”, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers” were great stories—pirates, swordfights, treachery, bravery—that appealed to children but also packed a significant political and allegorical punch. Dik Ming Kei could be Jim Hawkins, David Balfour or D'Artagnan—his story is universal.
Reviewer Score: 8