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Review: Tsui Hark's "The Taking of Tiger Mountain"

Hong Kong maverick and showman Tsui Hark remakes one of the classic Eight Model Operas into a 3D war extravaganza.
The opening title card improbably, surprisingly reads “New York 2015,” and within seconds we are immersed in a expatriate Chinese holiday party for a friend about to leave for a new job. The images come fast and contextless; CGI renderings of New York, quick interiors, and critically, a glimmer of analogue past. An old Chinese film starts accidentally on the group’s karaoke machine, prompting groans and rolling eyes. Quickly (inevitably), the same footage is played on a cell phone, in the back of a cab. A lone man, pulled by nostalgia and memory, is lured into the image and an impromptu journey to his home town.
Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D is the latest in the director’s career-long exploration/re-interpretation of key Chinese myths, events, narratives and texts, and we find our subject here as young party guests accidentally cue up Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, a 1970 film based on a Peking opera of the same name, itself based on Qu Bo’s 1957 novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest. The opera was named one of the Eight Model Operas during the Cultural Revolution, its Maoist context, or Tsui’s response to said context, functioning invisibly within the new film. This Hong Kong maverick’s work—producing, directing, writing—has always been, to some degree, political, this latest effort falling in line with his other recent CGI, fast-and-loose history extravaganzas such as Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (and its prequel) and The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Like these films, The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D is a very irreverent take on Chinese history, populated by outlandish villains and ever-increasing layers of stylized artificiality. What begins as a snowy war tale soon becomes something of a fantasy film, complete with garish prosthetics and implausible derring-do. These latest films all find Tsui in a more relaxed entertainer position than his fierce early films or the string of challenging masterpieces he produced in the 1990s, but still offer glimmers of the younger firebrand.
In short, the central narrative follows an undercover mission undertaken by the People’s Liberation Army, aimed at bringing down a large fortress of bandits who have used the chaos of the civil war to accrue much power following the defeat of Japan during World War 2. A mysterious scout, Yang (Zhang Hanyu), goes undercover, infiltrating the titular compound, while the unnamed Captain 203 (Lin Gengxin) readies his sparse forces for the defense of a nearby village. Meanwhile, the central villain, Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-fai), vies to amass even more power.
For a film centering on barbarism and chaos, the 2014 The Taking of Tiger Mountain leaves much to be desired when stacked up to Tsui’s The Blade (1995) or A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989), similar works on ravaged, war-torn landscapes. Aesthetically, the imperfect sheen applied by digital effects robs the film of the genuine desperation and fear that defined those pictures. As a pure war film, it functions on most of the basic tropes we’ve all become familiar with. The battles are swift and occasionally exciting, particularly a late-game siege that cashes in on geographic familiarity with the defended village, and slow-motion explosions peppered through
out the film produce winningly dirty clumps of flying snow. But Tsui’s mastery lies not in spatial delineations or clean action, but in a particular consideration of violence that can encompass both the political and the metaphysical in turn. Even in his most cartoonish films violence is always costly, and what can be lightly comedic can quickly become an expression of despair or horror. Like The Blade, this is a harsh world, as if post-apocalyptic, and the repetitious cold lighting gradually infests the film with foreboding. A world of violence is not only gun battles and explosions; women are lashed and imprisoned, children left starving, and men are used quite literally as dogs. This latest film, like A Better Tomorrow III and The Blade, finds war a state of siege for all humanity, touching and warping everything. Is this something akin to a particularly violent Western, a view of a nation reforming itself on a base of violence? One cannot ignore the historical context, the real nation resulting from the narrative’s peripheral events. Is Tsui again returning to the fear of his other films, the uncertain moral landscapes of Hong Kong and China scattered throughout his filmography? Frustratingly, elusively, the film wriggles away at every opportunity. What remains is the war, the violence, the special effects.
Any approach becomes quickly murky. Tsui Hark is an entertainer, and one of the best, even as his narratives lose some of their intensity. For every punk impulse born of his 1979 Dangerous Encounters - First Kind thereis an even more powerful showman’s response. One finds in Tsui’s work a continuum; films, sequences, or even shots vacillate between multiple genres or tones, grave considerations and slapstick shoulder-to-shoulder. Terror itself seems closer to a conquering elemental force than a plot mechanic, threatening at times to swallow Tsui’s lighter instincts. However softened his touch, his cinema can still induce chills or genuine horror, and the fortress at the center of The Taking of Tiger Mountain, alternating red, orange, black, and white, is a deceptive cartoon, containing the same genuine inhumanity found in the alleys and psychic breaks of The Blade. But the film never lingers too heavily, and for all the story contrivances Tsui manages to quite deftly balance his impulses. Moments of tension or fear dissipate into the spectacle, only to reemerge again. 
And what spectacle! Tsui’s bad CGI is truly a unique beast, globby and awkward and always charming. The blaring artificiality lends each vision its own sputtering life, best embodied here by a large tiger that attacks Yang as he travels alone. There’s something of a thesis on Tsui Hark special effects in this sequence, at least as it’s applied to action. Different planes shift from practical to CGI and back again as the tiger and Yang scurry up and down a tree. Because the transitions from practical to CGI effects aren’t as smooth as those in big budget Hollywood films, the form has to account for this lack or, to borrow a word from above, awkwardness, splintering the action into clustered moments. Gone are the plummeting and agile movements of Time and Tide, replaced here with a fragmentary action. An actor will roll, or dodge a tiger, and an edit will then give the tiger its brief but solitary space, allowing for its interaction with a CGI tree (previously practical). CGI fragments will spray, and in another shot the actor will roll into fake snow. This isn’t anything particularly profound, but Tsui invests each fragment with its own momentum, so that the digital and practical effects gain equal force, resulting in a CGI that gains as much force as the physical performer.
Where the film perhaps can’t be reconciled is in its source. The question of propagandistic entertainment naturally arises, but the film broadly sidesteps it by diving into extravaganza. It’s curious and initially frustrating for a frequently aggressive (if equally frequently cloaked) political filmmaker to largely sidestep the present subtext. When we pull back to the framing device, the ghosts or memories of the dead soldiers gathering around a table to share meal, is it camaraderie we’re meant to feel? Pride, patriotism? It rings most accurately as contrivance, a bit of war film sappiness, at least until a sudden, gonzo-revisionist backtrack that cannot be spoiled here. Gradually, though, through the film’s barreling approach, one comes to realize the lack of necessity for political address; the suffering and wanton violence speak enough humanity for themselves. In a rather eccentric way Tsui exercises restraint, and we see a glint of older wisdom, perhaps suggesting these recent blockbuster experiments may be arriving at something after all.

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