Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain
aka 新蜀山劍俠 aka Xin shu shan jian ke
Written by Shui Chung-Yuet and Sze-To Cheuk-Hon
Directed by Tsui Hark
My life having gone through the binge period of renting blurry Hong Kong VHS second generation dubs with hard to read subtitles from locally owned video stores in the 90s, Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is one of those films that unleashes giant waves of nostalgia. Despite the bad conditions it was being viewed under, the energy and effects magics caused it to rise above the masses. I’ve since seen it on first generation VHS, vcd, and DVD, each time being a fun experience as an idealistic young fighter is caught in the world of wuxia masters, who turn out to have just as many problems as the normal folk (only their problems are a million times more dangerous!) With Tsui Hark’s direction (and choreography work done by Corey Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao, Fung Hak-On, and Mang Hoi), Zu is visually distinctive. The choreography and effects jumpstarted the look of modern Hong Kong film from the 1980s, while the color and humorous tone helped distinguish it from the Shaw Brothers films that it often shared rental store space with.
The effects look a bit dated now, flying people on obvious wires, old school makeup effects, and cartoon lasers zapping around. But a lot of the practical effects still look nice, and the pulsating monster seems more dangerous as a jiggling puppet than it would as just a bunch of lifeless CGI. The effects were pushed to show that Hong Kong could produce films on par with Star Wars and other early 80s effects-laden films from Hollywood. While I don’t think they quite match the talent, much is accomplished on what is obviously an insanely smaller budget (and Hong Kong effects would develop much further thanks to experience from producing films like this one!)
Despite the effects, much of the film is character driven. Dik Ming Kei’s endless idealism, Ding Yan’s tough exterior hiding a lonesome and good man, Yat Jan being a royal screw up, and the Ice Queen being the total opposite of her name when it comes to Ding Yan. It’s Moon Lee’s first major role, she would go on to be a major player in the Girls with Guns films of the late 80s/early 90s. Brigitte Lin began her domination as a martial arts queen that would ripen with Swordsman II and The Bride with White Hair.
The energy of Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is infectious, it covers so much that we’re sprinting from concept to concept. Despite that, the basic story is simple to follow. They even stop to remind everyone that it is just good vs. evil!
Dik Ming Kei is a scout for the Blues (Western Soldiers), who enrages his generals due to his inability to follow their conflicting orders. He meets up with a Red Solder (Eastern), played by Sammo Hung, who he gains a begrudging respect for as the two work together to escape other colored armies (whites, oranges, greens, etc.). But the chaos of multiple battles causes Red to shove Dik off a cliff to save him. Dik ends up in a hidden valley where the martial world rages.
Saved from ghost thugs by Ding Yan, Dik Ming Kei tags along has his self-recruited student as Ding Yan prepares to fight King of Hell and the Evil Sect. Hiu Yu of Kwan-Leun and his student Yat Jan are there as well, also intent in battling Evil Sect. But their arguing lets King of Hell escape, and soon that endangers everyone as Hiu Yu is poisoned and a bundle of evil is released. Luckily the big rock of evil is held in place by Cheung Mei and his huge white eyebrows. He tells Dik that they need to go to Tin-Ngoi-Tin cave and reunite the green and purple twin swords that were taken by Lei Yikkei the wonder girl 18 years ago, and they have only 49 days to do so. Worse yet, Hiu Yu’s poison will kill him if he’s not brought to the Ice Queen in 10 days and she chooses to cure him. Finally, King of Hell is still running around causing trouble and impersonating people.
The Ice Queen first refuses to cure Hiu Yu due to fate, but is swayed by the convictions of Ding Yan, and goes ahead with the curing. Unfortunately, soon after they leave Ding Yan is revealed to also be poisoned, and Ice Queen is too weak to heal him as well. But their exchange from earlier revealed they had feelings for each other, and Ice Queen risks all to save him, though there are consequences. The entire palace is entombed in ice, with only Dik, Yat Jan, and a guard played by Moon Lee (who doesn’t even get a name!) escaping.
The trio have no choice but to finish the mission and reunite the swords to save the planet, but things will not be easy (because what kind of movie would that be?!) But be assured, we got guys chained to rocks, people being sucked into Hell, and even flying light saber battles!
The fantastical elements of Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain are the draw, but the hook is the story. Zu tackles an age old dilemma. Dik Ming Kei is sick of fighting, and finds a kindred spirit with a soldier from a rival faction. The two plot to escape the endless pointless fighting, but just end up blundering into bigger and bigger battles. Later, as Dik Ming Kei encounters the martial world and views the people with powers that he sees is legendary, he implores them to use their skills to unite mankind to end suffering. But the martial world is just as fractured, and that split endangers the entire planet. It’s only when rivals work together that people stand a chance, and only when people are as one can the swords be reunited. Much as when people in the outside world work together, they will end the violence and sorrow. China went through many periods of rival factions battling it out for supremacy, resulting in turmoil and unrest. A call for uniting not only speaks to back then, but also applies to today and the continued conflicts in the world.
Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is essential viewing for Hong Kong cinema fans. It’s influence can be felt in fantasy wuxia films to this day, and it kickstarted the proliferation of fantasy films through the 80s and 90s, many of which became classics of their own.
As an aside, there is an “international cut” (called Zu: Time Warriors) around that features modern day bookends, with Yuen Biao becoming obsessed with a painting of Moon Lee, then finding her in real life, only to get hit by a car and having a coma dream (aka the rest of the movie) At the end, he wakes up and it’s love love love. It is as bad as it sounds. Stick with the original, avoid all recuts and remakes, and use your beard to stop evil monsters.
Rated 8/10 (EVIL!, It’s Birdemic!, magic, the magic of sunset, guardian, power, more power, goal)
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