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Legendary director Tsui Hark’s newest film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, features his unique flair for drama and action with a modern penchant for the extravagant. With its vivid cinematography (reminiscent of Shelly Johnson’s work on Captain America: The First Avenger) and quick, well-planned action sequences, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a cinematic spectacle.
Oddly enough, Tsui Hark’s epic opens in modern New York City on Christmas Eve. A quick flourish of action and background music take us in from the chilly night air into a karaoke-fueled party. Jimmy has gotten himself a job in Silicon Valley, and it is his last night in town. On his way to the train station, while cozily seated in the back of a taxi, Jimmy puts in his headphones, turns on his phone/tablet, and the real movie begins. A similar introductory shot places us high above the snowy mountains of China in 1946, during a period of civil unrest (after the Japanese had been defeated in the Second World War). A squadron of winter-hardened, skilled infantry has been fighting against rebel bandits, lead by the ruthless Master Hawk (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Commanded by their fearless Captain (Lin Gengxin), Unit 203 is joined by the mysterious field scout Yang (Zhang Hanyu) and nurse Little Dove (Tong Liya). Up against insurmountable odds, Unit 203 decides to use their newly-acquired talent to infiltrate Hawk’s bandit camp, and bring his reign to an end.
While Tsui’s post-WWII narrative feels sure footed and strong, the modern day framing for the story is ill-conceived and poorly executed. Mismatched dubbing and clunky dialogue seem utterly out of place, and provide no real purpose to the story. Being introduced to a person who is about to watch a movie on a cell phone does not make a 70-year old story feel more modern; it only serves to make the story more convoluted. Thankfully, Tsui only revisits his introductory framework twice, and concentrates on his richly detailed Chinese war story.
As a member of the Hong Kong New Wave, Tsui Hark’s grasp of gritty, well-choreographed action sequences is unparalleled. Tsui’s recent foray into 3D has allowed him to further explore the moments in between a bullet being fired from its gun, or the extreme skill with which his characters wield their many weapons. In the introductory fight scene, Tsui “pauses” time (or “Bullet Time” as made popular by the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy) to rotate around a cloud of bullets in order to show how intricately each is placed in order to reach their final targets. Tsui continues to use this strategy throughout as a means to both present the characters’ miraculous skills, and to fully immerse his audience in the action. Tsui keeps his action in the realm of possibility (almost), and shies away from the unrealistic wire-fu utilized by his contemporaries. While Tsui’s action is certainly not plausible, it is close enough, providing a sense of fun that permeates the film. While being attacked by a tiger (that’s right, there’s a tiger fight in the movie), Yang uses the means available to him, namely a tree, in order to survive. He does not fly through the air, become a martial arts genius or overpower the hulking beast; he just feels like a respectably talented climber dodging tiger strikes at the last possible moment. He is not a super hero in this moment; he is a man fighting for his life.
Alongside Tsui’s depiction of the battle sequences, are the meticulously choreographed bandit deaths throughout the film. After decades of brutal action films packed with violence, one would expect audiences have seen all of the possible ways to die – this is incorrect. Unit 203’s ingenious booby traps aside, Tsui and his special effects/fight choreography team come up with some amazing set pieces, minutely timed to provide maximum impact and tension.
Tsui Hark obtained the rights to Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest, in order to modernize the story, which he had originally seen as a Beijing Opera. Tsui’s flair for action is nearly overshadowed by his love of the dramatic; as the roles played by sabotage and deceit become a pervading force in the film. At its heart, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a modern opera. A loud boisterous performance by Zhang Hanyu framed against and the quietly menacing and shadowy Tony Leung Ka Fai, make enemies Yang and Hawk stand as polar opposites – one a force for good, another pure evil. Slowly building like a piece of operatic music, Tsui’s film is expansive and threatening. Constantly building to the impending crescendo when the rival forces finally clash.
Tsui Hark’s war epic, while somewhat stifled by its makeshift framework, is an incredibly fun story that is full of heart. Sweeping visuals dominate the screen as Tsui’s characters become slowly embroiled in a battle of wits. Imaginative action sequences, and earnest performance by Hanyu, Gengxin, and Liya round out an exhilarating action adventure saga.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain arrived in select cities yesterday (January 2nd) and will continue to spread on the 9th. Click here for a full schedule