Zu Warrior (Shu shan Zheng Zhuan)
by Hark Tsui (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Miramax Film ISBN/ITEM#: ZUWAR2001
Date: March 7, 2006 / Show Official Info /
CAST: Ekin Cheng as King Sky; Cecilia Cheung as Dawn/Enigma; Louis Koo as Red; Patrick Tam as Thunder; Kelly Lin as Amnesia; Sammo Hung Kam-Bo as White Eyebrows; Ziyi Zhang as Joy (as Zhang Ziyi); Jacky Wu as Hollow/Ying; Lan Shun as Master Trascendental (as Lau Shun)
The American release of arguably the most elaborate fantasy film ever produced in Hong Kong has been both long delayed, and unconscionably marginalized; and as Zu Warriors typifies its genre, its shabby treatment reflects the way American distributors misunderstand all Asian genre cinema.
It's hard to find a clear way into Hong Kong fantasy, for the interested neophyte, and a lot of American fans are still missing out, so here's some background (if you don't need it, just skip this paragraph): before the eighties, Americans best knew the rich and varied Hong Kong cinema for its kung fu pictures; during them, that genre blossomed into dazzling hyper-kinetic medieval fantasies, often called swordplay films. One of the major forces behind this transformation was prolific writer-director-producer Tsui (Iron Monkey) Hark, who made a big fistful of swordplay fantasies, which remain among the genre's highest achievements, and easiest points of access. They draw heavily on Liaozhai Zhiyi by Pu Songling, a compendium of Chinese folklore implicitly familiar to Asian audiences; this cultural barrier, over which American viewers must leap, explains why American distributors shunned these movies, at the time. Despite that, they found a big cult following over here, causing their eventual assimilation into mainstream American culture. The final breakthrough came in 2001: Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a genre-buster that combined elements of the swordplay fantasy with other influences.
Meanwhile, as Lee kicked through the ashes of the swordplay genre for sparks of inspiration; Tsui Hark made Zu Warriors (also known as The Legend of Zu), ostensibly remaking his own Warriors of Zu Mountain, a seminal swordplay picture. (Oscar winner Yuen Wo Ping choreographed both Crouching Tiger and Zu Warriors.)
As Evil Dead 2 is the final zombie movie, as Touch of Evil is the ultimate film noir, so Zu Warriors is the last swordplay fantasy; though future filmmakers will find new ways to handle such material (and already have), after this point, it's all recycling. A passionate, hyperactive send-up of and send-off to the genre, Zu Warriors takes all its familiar elements and themes to their wildest possible extremes, dizzily displays its definitive familiarity with them, and leaves them so thoroughly exploded, that they'll never work the same way again.
Being the last swordplay movie makes Zu Warriors a dubious place for uninitiated audiences to start, and we may assume the people at Miramax (who picked up Hero, Shaolin Soccer and Zu Warriors as a package, then backed out on big theatrical distribution plans for all three pictures when, apparently, they finally watched them) felt the same. There's another sense in which this is the final movie: it is the last Hong Kong production that allowed itself the luxury of disdaining, even alienating, Western audiences. Now, long years later, Miramax has finally granted this milestone a straight-to-DVD release, in a new 80 minute U.S. version. (The extended Hong Kong cut, at 104 minutes, is included as a special feature.)
However, the hack job hasn't clarified a movie which assumes a working familiarity with much in the way of exotic characters, events and themes, and moved like a deranged kaleidoscope, to begin with. The word "Zu" refers both to a forbidding mountain range unexplored by humans, the legendary floating village hidden deep within its farthest reaches, and the race of superhuman immortals who populate it. Zu is protected from discovery by flying superpowered warriors, led by an Orientalesque Gandalf-figure named White Lion, who sports flowing white eyebrows four feet long (they trail out of the shot on either side in closeups, even in widescreen). Most of the story concerns their defensive battle for supremacy with a soul-eating villain named Onyx, who manifests as a giant flying skull, which itself is composed of whirling clouds of individual skulls, taken from his victims.
After that, even having seen the movie three times in two different cuts, I can't tell you much about the story that makes sense (though it is apparent that the movie does cohere, given close, repeated attention, or the right background). Despite its breakneck pace, Zu Warriors finds plenty of room for dialogue about the life and death and reincarnation of its characters, their many and various powers and weapons, and metaphysical babble regarding their energies and allegiances - all of which is densely significant, the better part of which makes little sense, in either version. Weak translation is part of the problem; even the new dubbed version contains glaring inconsistencies (for instance, one character is named both Silver Eagle and Silver Hawk, alternating at random).
But, you know what? Zu Warriors is such a success as pure visual cinema, that its lack of easy comprehension poses no barrier to appreciation as art and entertainment, given the right attitude. This is one of the very few movies anywhere so far that both creates an impression of continuous digital F/X, and has the imagination to keep up with its technology. If anything, there's a surfeit of imagination on hand – the phantasmagorical effects, locations and situations crowded into this movie could provide raw material for any ten regular-size fantasy spectaculars (or any three by Lucas or Jackson). And though your understanding of the story fades away at every edge into utter mystification, this won't shake your grip on the major movements at its center; you can follow who's good, who's bad, and what they're trying to accomplish. Given their undeniable visual impact, you'll still invest and engage as events unfold – despite their lack of apparent, accessible significance.
Appreciating Zu Warriors is a question of your frame of mind. Just consider your confusion, or cultural alienation, to be part of the price you pay for admission to a truly alien universe. This is indeed a visit to another world – startling, overwhelming, incomprehensible. Once you grasp that, the rest isn't just a movie; it's a revelation.