Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (29th April 2020).
The Film

Hong Kong Film Award (Best Picture): Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (nominated), Best Actress: Brigitte Lin (nominated), Best Art Direction: William Chang (nominated), Best Action Choreography: Corey Yuen (nominated), and Best Film Editing (nominated) - Hong Kong Film Awards, 1984

The Zu mountain chain in what is known now as Sichuan province is a mystical territory from whose peaks many legends were born; during the Tang Dynasty, however, it is of military strategic importance, and a civil war is taking place at the base of the mountains. When war-weary military scout Ti Ming Chi (Project A's Biao Yuen) deserts the army, he finds shelter in a mountain cavern which is also unfortunately inhabited by demonic entities that almost consume him before he is rescued by scholar Ting Yu (Seven Warriors' Adam Cheng). Ti Ming Chi is grateful to Ting Yu and begs to become his apprentice. Ting Yu is reluctant to take him on, but must however protect him when they stumble upon the ceremonial grounds of an evil sect that worships the Blood Demon who Ting Yu is tasked to destroy. They discover, that Ting Yu is not the only one hunting the sect when monk Hsiao-Yu (Last Hurrah for Chivalry's Damian Lau) turns up with his apprentice I-Chen (Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars' Mang Hoi). They have no choice but to bring Ti Ming Chi along when they battle the evil sect – lead by Hark-On Fung (Police Story) – and they manage to destroy the body of the Blood Demon with the help of Longbrow (Eastern Condors' Sammo Hung) but its soul escapes the body and encases itself in a shell made up of the skulls of the sect's virgin sacrifices until it can be reborn. Longbrow manages to contain it by wrapping in his tentacle-like brows and repelling it with his sky mirror, but he can only do so for the next forty-nine days before the stars shift and his mirror loses its shine. Before then, the others are tasked with finding the Purple and Green twin swords of Heaven and Earth from the peak of Heaven's Blade. Infected by the Blood Demon, Hsaio-Yu makes I-Chen his successor and plans to destroy himself; however, Ting Yu takes him to a temple of goddesses for the Countess (Peking Opera Blues' Brigitte Lin) to cure him. The Countess expends incredible energy to dissolve the venom running through Hsaio-Yu's blood, but not reveals that he has also been infected and is no longer powerful enough to stave it off and the Countess has exhausted herself as well. To contain the evil, she smashes her magic bronze mirror, encasing the entire temple in ice. Only Ti Ming Chi, I-Chen, and the Countess' handmaid Mu Sang (Mr. Vampire's Moon Lee) manage to escape. They make it to the peak of Heaven's Blade only to discover that Heaven's Blade is actually a god (Duel to the Death's Norman Chu) who has chained himself at the border between good and evil which the escaped and possessed Ti Ming Chi plans to cross and bring back other demons with him. Ti Ming Chi and I-Chen are left to seek out the swords but they are warned by the goddess Li I Chi (The Pillow Book's Judy Ongg) that the swords most powerful when they unite; and yet must never touch or both the swords and their user will be destroyed (a contradiction even she does not understand).
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Director Tsui Hark's fifth film after the poor reception of his first two and fourth – The Butterfly Murders, We're Going to Eat You, and All the Wrong Clues for the Right Solution – and the banning of his third Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind until it could be recut and reshot, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was an ambitious turn towards the fantastic and the epic, taking its basic premise from a forties serialized story (later published as forty-odd novels) and incorporating then state-of-the-art effects – bringing in Star Wars' effects artists Robert Blalack (Altered States) and Peter Kuran (Robocop) along with effects camera operator Tama Takahashi (Blade Runner), animator Chris Casady (Dragonslayer), and technicians John Scheele (TRON) and Arnie Wong (Heavy Metal) – to put a high-tech spin on the wuxia as well as drawing stylistically from Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead on the other end of the American genre spectrum (that influence would be far more pronounced in the Hark-produced A Chinese Ghost Story). The film is not so much plotted as stacked with visual effects set-pieces with only a loose framing. As visually-stunning as these sequences may be, the plotting does result in a meandering middle of getting to the temple to get the monk cured, leaving to get the swords only to have to go back to cure the scholar, taking a long time to justify why it must be the two apprentices who must wield the swords. The thematic line of a lack of unity in humankind as a weakness that leads to war as well as making them vulnerable to demons is framed in the Buddhist contradiction of the swords (a year before Ghostbusters crossed the streams).

While the more overtly horrific A Chinese Ghost Story made more of an international splash in its own form, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain would be extensively reworked for its export version Zu: Time Warrior with wraparound sequences starting with a thirty-minute modern day sequence set in Canada where Ti Ming Chi is a college student who goes to see a Chinese archaeological exhibit and is drawn to a mural of Morning Flower (Moon Lee) whose legend is that she was once a peasant girl whose love went off to war and the gods took pity on her and made her a goddess. The curator is unable to tell him what became of the lover, suggesting that "maybe the legend is not finished yet." Ti Ming Chi soon sees the resemblance between Morning Flower and a classmate with whom he begins an affair. She disappears on him, leaving behind a note that says they will be reunited if it is fated, and he consults a fortune teller and is told that his past life cannot be separated from the present and that he must "go back into the past and forget about the present" to find her; whereupon he gets into a car accident. In some more new footage, he finds himself back in the past and finds his home village decimated. He vows to find Morning Flower but is advised by a village elder that he is better off joining the fight against evil, and that something things are found when one is not looking for them. The new footage, flatly shot by Raymond Lam (Mr. Nice Guy) in English with stilted acting and post-synch, drags and viewers with no prior knowledge of the original film may lose interest. The opening battle sequence is entirely missing along with the original coda – eliminating the entirety of Hung's other role in the film as an enemy soldier who finds himself fleeing with Ti Ming Chi before they are separated – however, the export version is significantly different enough to be of interest to fans of the film, Hark, and those interest in the alterations made to Hong Kong action and fantastic cinema for marketing overseas.
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Video

Not given scant subtitled American theatrical release by Century Pacific – who also released The Bride with White Hair's and its sequel – until 1989, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was largely unavailable stateside until Tai Seng put out a laserdisc and a DVD of the Hong Kong version using the same master (minus the export scenes included as an extras on the laserdisc). The film fared better overseas with a British Hong Kong Legends featuring an anamorphic transfer, 5.1 upmixes, and a Hark commentary moderated by Bey Logan as well as a Region 3 Fortune Star DVD two-disc edition (both of which feature the export scenes as extras). The first Blu-ray release came from Hong Kong, although we have not been able to compare it (and determine whether it was another upscale like some of Fortune Star's masters for earlier Hong Kong Blu-rays). Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 2K master. The color-coded armies pop as does the gel lighting, and costumes while sharpness varies with the "naturalistic" look of the opening scenes subject in some shots to diffusion while the many visual effects shots are of course optical composite with varying degrees of graininess. Close-ups are striking, from facial features – and the striking Lin's severe make-up and hairstyling – to the model shots which are obvious as what they are but appealing it the context of the effects technology of the period. The export cut is also in high definition but comes from a 2010 master of materials that were not particularly cared for in the first place. The image is overall darker with the black hair of the Asian actors during the Canada scenes blending into shadow while the higher contrast gives the colors a bump rather than a boost in the effects sequences. While this cut is overall inferior, it is a pity that it could not be remastered.

Audio

Audio options for the Hong Kong cut include the original Cantonese mono in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and is overall the superior option in terms of clarity and fidelity, while the newer English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo dub - in which Ting Yu is called "Temperence" and Hsaio-Yu is "Wisdom" - has clear dialogue but the music and effects are uneven as if there was no seperate music and effects stems for more dynamic placement of the elements. The export version includes only an English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track in mostly good condition. Optional English subtitles are included only for the Hong Kong cut and reveal that even the English-speaking actors are post-dubbed. The music is also differently deployed here in places with the end title theme also used for the opening titles.
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Extras

In place of the Hark commentary from the Hong Kong Legends release is a selected scenes audio commentary by film historian Tony Rayns (68:53) in which he discusses the literary roots of the film – noting that Hark did not base the film on any of the stories but use the idea that it could be one of the many myths of the mountain – that this specific genre of literature and Chinese mainland film had been banned in the thirties by the Communists but resurged in the forties with the sort of films that Hark saw as a child and paid homage to in the film. He also discusses Hark's education in America, his leftist leanings in China and how they informed his earlier films, and the contributions to the script of uncredited Chung-Yuet Shui and credited Cheuk-Hon Szeto (who would go on to pen several Jackie Chan vehicles). He also discusses the influence of Star Wars and the film's acknowledge influence on John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. In the “Son of Incredibly Strange Film Show” (22:06) TV episode on Hark with presenter Johnathan Ross focusing mainly on A Chinese Ghost Story but featuring interviews with Hark and his associates – including then-wife Nansun Shi who has collaborated with him as late as 2018's Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings – as well as some references to the production troubles on Golden Harvest's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Cinema City's Aces Go Places 3: Our Man from Bond Street that lead to him founding his own company Film Workshop (the second half of the program focused on filmmaker Stuart Gordon and could not be included due to licensing costs).

Also making up for the absence of the earlier commentary is a new interview with director Tsui Hark (61:23) in which he notes that he had a contract with Cinema City but took the idea to Golden Harvest because they were capable of raising a larger budget (he prepped the third Aces Go Places during Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain to finish his contract with the former company, that he went to Hollywood trying to network with people to get a handle on how to do the visual effects he wanted (he initially intended to just bring in Hollywood consultants but ended up with the Star Wars artists as designers. He discusses the long pre-production and production period, the difficulty of the effects work (using an ENG field camera pointed into the camera's viewfinder rather than a video assist to line up shots for compositing), and makes his feelings known about the export cut by holding producer Raymond Chow (Way of the Dragon) responsible for the idea. He briefly discusses the later Zu Warriors (shot in a considerably shorter period than the original film thanks to CGI) and his desire to return to that universe again solely to see what he would do differently. Ported over from the Fortune Star DVD is an interview with actor Yuen Biao (12:29) who recalls that they spent seven to eight months in pre-production watching movies and working out how the effects were achieved through guesswork and noting that only the wirework was where Hong Kong cinema was superior at the time. Ported over from the Hong Kong Legends disc is the interview with actress Moon Lee (21:16) who recalls the film as her first real film role, getting close to her fellow cast members, and noting the detail that went into her hairstyling (also noting that it took considerably longer to style Lin who was in pain from how tightly her hair was braided and woven). Also ported from the Hong Kong Legends release is an interview with actor Mang Hoi (17:40) who recalls being a child actor in Enter the Dragon, becoming involved with Hung and Jackie Chan, the evolution of fight stuntwork from conforming to specific styles to mixes of what looks good for the camera (and his belief that filmmaking techniques should be used to make fights convincing rather than actual physical contact anymore). The disc also includes the film's Hong Kong theatrical trailer (3:30).
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Packaging

The disc is packed in a limited edition O-card of 2,000 copies new artwork by Darren Wheeling and also includes a and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by film historian James Oliver. The essay acknowledges the busyness of the film's scenario and the cluttered opening, the film's references to the Chinese mainland wuxia of the forties - back when Hong Kong filmmaking was in its infancy - and the specific genre of Shenguai Wuxia involving gods and demons, the film's origins and the importation of Hollywood effects artists, as well as speculation on the film's disappointing Hong Kong reception.
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Overall

Director Tsui Hark's first ambitious turn towards the fantastic and the epic with Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain should also be of interest to super-fans of Star Wars and any number of eighties studio American horror and science fiction films.

 


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