The Taking Of Tiger Mountain (Zhì qu weihu shan)
China (2014) Dir. Tsui Hark
As a legend of martial arts and action fantasy films it is rare to see Hong Kong’s Tsui Hark step outside of this comfort zone, at least as a director. So it is with this 3D adaptation of the 1957 novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest by Qu Bo that Hark turns his attention to the Chinese Civil War of 1946 between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, Kuomintang (KMT) forces and a gang of nasty bandits.
In the Heilongjiang province of Northeast China, a small PLA squad, led by Captain 203 (Genxin Lin), arrive at the Peony River on a mission, joined by nurse Bai Ru (Liya Tong) and experienced scout Yang Zirong (Hanyu Zhang). They learn that a tiny village situated at the bottom of the imposing Tiger Mountain named Leather Creek has been attacked by both the KMT and a gang of bandits working for the villainous Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fai – not the other Tony Leung).
While fortifying the area, the PLA learn that a KMT official Hou (Hai Yitian) is trying to trick Hawk into wiping out his enemy, rival bandit Big Stick, in order to gain possession of a beneficial map. Instead, one of Big Stick’s men, Luan Ping (Du Yiheng), has the map and plans to defect to Hawk’s gang and sell it to him. However the PLA get there first and send Yang to infiltrate Hawk’s gang, using the map to gain entrance.
The 1940’s setting seems almost irrelevant to Hark as he approaches the telling of this espionage tale as he would his ancient martial arts flicks; one certainly can tell they are watching a Tsui Hark film based on the structure, the shot compositions, the characters and of course the bombastic action sequences. With the most modern pieces of technology present being tanks and rocket launchers this could easily have been transposed as a wu xia adventure.
But Hark seems keen to avoid being labelled a one trick pony and despite his familiar style permeating through every frame, the change of location is refreshing and allows for Hark to flex his creative muscles on something new. For western viewers this version of China may still seem antiquated as our post War world was entering into a new technological era of TV, colour cinema, flashier cars and the like; this 1946 rural China is as backdated as ever, with electricity not even appearing to be a readily available commodity.
This film is actually bookended with a modern day prologue/epilogue, possibly Hark’s psuedo-political statement in a film which surprisingly eschews them given the circumstances. It opens in New York in December 2015 where Jimmy (Han Geng) returning home to China sees a clip of the 1970 film version of Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, setting him off to reminiscence about the events that inspire the film.
You’ll have to wait until the end to see why Jimmy should be so personally affected by this but a key figure in this would be Knotti (Su Yiming), a young boy orphaned at the hands of the bandits. Initially distrusting and feral Knotti does little to integrate himself with the others until he and another soldier are captured as a result of his actions. From hereon in Knotti starts to man up and pull his weight.
As mentioned earlier there was a huge danger that this film could have ended up a propaganda piece for the PLA or the subsequent Cultural Revolution or whomever; Hark has never been one for political messages in his films, keeping his focusing on entertainment first and foremost. This film is no different but if there is a message to be taken away from this, it is the importance of the family bond, be it by blood or fraternal, and honouring one’s lineage.
Working mostly in Hong Kong, Hark has made a film that actually feels like a mainland Chinese work, in both style and tone whilst maintaining his own identity. This shines through the most in the action sequences which are resplendent in OTT popcorn blockbuster visual mayhem. The CGI blood and Matrix-esque bullet time effects do look incongruously fake but this was shot in 3D, and in 2D they look like the frivolous “justifying the gimmick” insertions they actually are.
But Hark cleverly uses the camerawork to bring out the best of the 3D effect for when the pace quietens down a bit. Between the snowy locales of Leather Creek and the opulence of Hawk’s palace, there are a lot of opportunities for such simple visuals to provide an immersive experience for the viewer in both 3D and 2D. A CGI tiger is an example of the best and worst of the effect, the animal itself is superbly rendered but its movements occasionally feel unnatural. The scene itself however is nail biting stuff.
While there is a lot to praise about his film and its enjoyment it does come with a few niggles. First, prior knowledge of the PLA and the Chinese Civil War helps; second, with everyone wearing rags and winter clothes it is often hard to distinguish who is who – the villains get a bye with their scars, eye patches, face paint and in Hawk’s case, hair shaped like wings and a big pointy nose! Finally, the first 45 minutes is quite slow, save for the odd battle, and the story is obfuscated behind the clumsy set-up and character introductions.
The Taking Of Tiger Mountain may be a deviation from the norm for Tsui Hark subject wise, but you’d never guess it, as his fingerprints are all over it. One could argue that it was a much needed detour as it shows a creatively and energetically revitalised Hark in comparison to the by-the-numbers approach to his recent martial arts/fantasy flicks.
For an action adventure this film wrapped around a deft espionage plot, this delivers plenty of big scale edge of your seat bangs for your buck.