THE MOVIE In 1983 a 33-year-old American-educated Chinese director made his fifth movie in four years. Most often called Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain in U.S. versions, it is a bizarre story of mystical warriors fighting an evil presence threatening to take over the universe. The special effects, though crude even by the first Star Wars standards, are constant, the bloodless action just as nonstop, and the story next to incomprehensible. It’s the sort of movie that makes more sense after 50 bong hits, and it helped usher in the Hong Kong cinema’s supernatural kung-fun epic (see also: Chinese Ghost Story).
Two decades later that director, Tsui Hark, is the Hong Kong visionary behind such grand entertainments as Peking Opera Blues, traditional kung-fun and swordplay epics Once Upon a Time in China and The Blade, and the genreless art-house actioner Time and Tide. And now that digital effects can make almost any visual idea a reality, why not remake his early classic? Hark’s 2001 Zu Warriors—recently made available on DVD—hot-wires his early saga into modern movie magic that looks and moves like live-action anime and, miraculously, is exponentially more batshit than the first.
Like The Lord of the Rings, Zu is about an all-powerful evil force threatening the very future of the known world, but where Peter Jackson needed some nine hours to tell his tale, Hark requires but 104 minutes. The sky-floating archipelago of mountains called Zu is the home to many houses of mystic warriors under attack from the demon Insomnia. Old sage White Eyebrows (Hong Kong screen legend Sammo Hung, who starred in the original Zu)—named such because of his six-plus feet of white eyebrows that undulate in the air like hosiery on a clothesline—gets warriors King Sky (Ekin Cheng), Enigma (Cecilia Cheung), Red (Louis Koo), and Thunder (Patrick Tam) to join forces to defeat the threat.
That’s pretty much it—what’s left is an orgy of special effects, chaste melodrama, and goreless warfare. Red’s wings—yes, he has wings—become knifelike fighting blades. King Sky gets well-done charred and resurrects himself by Zentastic defrying. Enigma wields the ass-whooping heaven sword, which swooshes around in pulsating red and blue curlicues like a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbon. Some of Insomnia’s henchmen are these black-metal-clad goons who move around by disintegrating into razor-sharp metal beetles and flying around. The second-biggest threat in the entire flick is a Tinkerbellish flying pixie. And Insomnia himself looks like an offensive lineman in a foam suit who tools around in this giant blood-red wave that is only a wee bit more sophisticated than 1958’s The Blob.
THE DISC A making-of featurette offers the usual insight into the behind-the-scenes madness, but such nuts and bolts matters can’t tarnish Zu’s total insanity. And stick with the original Cantonese version—the English-dubbed version is an even slimmer 80 minutes that actually makes more sense, but narrative cohesion isn’t what you come for here. Besides, in the dubbed version you miss out on the bizarrely metaphoric English subtitles. (Bret McCabe)