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Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition

Feature


Ti Ming Chi (Yuen Biao) is a faceless soldier caught in pointless battles between warring, colour coded clans. While escaping into the mystic Zu Mountains, Ming Chi meets up with master swordsman Ting Yin (Adam Cheng), and is dragged along on a dangerous quest to find the legendary Twin Swords. The swords may be the only weapons capable of stopping an all-consuming ancient evil that until now has only been held in check by the venerable Long Brows (Sammo Hung).

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (hence forth referred to as Zu Warriors to save my poor little typing fingers) was one of the three reasons I fell in love with Hong Kong cinema of the '80s (the other two were A Chinese Ghost Story and Mr. Vampire). It's a strange film by both Western and Eastern standards. Director Tsui Hark, who was still on his way to real super-stardom at the time, attempted to mix the kind of mythological wuxia adventures that were popular at the time, with more Hollywoodized storytelling and special effect work. He even brought in some of the people behind Star Wars for technical assistance.

The first time I saw the film I assumed it was some kind of mega-hit. I only rented it because it was considered so influential by Western filmmakers I liked, including John Carpenter, who made an homage to Hark called Big Trouble in Little China. I found out much later that the film was kind of a fiasco, going over time and budget, and not pulling in all that much cash. It wasn't a flop, but it wasn't the driving force behind the '80s fantasy/horror/kung fu boom. Stuff like Sammo Hung's Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind series, the Mr. Vampire movies, and the Hark produced Chinese Ghost Story series were more popular and influential in Hong Kong, according to some sources.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


So seeing the film as a lad, without the knowledge of the genre and culture I have now, I always figured Zu Warriors was so nonsensical because that's the way things ran in Hong Kong. I figured it was a culture shock and I should just go with it. I now know that the film is a mess by accident, and that the finished product was not the film anyone intended.

So it's messy, the plot’s all over the place, the special effects are a little wonky by modern standards, and the end comes very suddenly, but it's still a blast. Zu Warriors is like a pleasant fever dream, the kind of story children will make up while playing with action figures. The film is colourful, it's got some fantastic martial arts work, and Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung are hilarious. Think Sam Raimi meets Zhang Yimou meets Buster Keaton meets Mario Bava, and your about half way there. Some may find the film's bizarre theatrics and disregard for plot too much to bear, but this is one Hong Kong film every fan needs under his or her belt.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


Video


After years of non-anamorphic, washed out viewing on my Hong Kong R0 release I'm finally able to enjoy the film, with subtitles, while watching it in widescreen mode. The film has also been nicely remasterd for this release. Details are much sharper than the old release. Having only seen the film on a rotten HK VHS previous to my sad original release DVD, there were a lot of details I had missed completely. The temple scene towards the beginning of the film where Yuen Biao first meets the Swordsman is no longer a dark and confusing blur.

Colours, a very important aspect to the film, are vibrant. Some of the brighter and warmer colours have an issue with bleeding. Grain is as minimal as can probably be expected, but multiply greatly during darker scenes. The film's blacks are much deeper than the old release, but have problems absorbing the colours around them. All in all this is a quantum leap beyond the old release, and probably close to the best the film can possibly look.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


Audio


There are multiple tracks to choose from here, and they all have their problems. The biggest problem is that the dialogue and sound effects are all crammed into the centre channel, while the stereo channels are reserved for the score (which also sounds pretty mono-riffic). I couldn't hear much out of the rear channels. It's too bad the film couldn't have been remixed more successfully because the aggressive sound design lends itself well to the surround format.

Demon voices are often purposefully distorted and loud, but instead of sounding frightening they're just overbearing. Other sound effects are nearly silent, though in context they should be loud. The sound designers stuff so many effects into a single track that some of the bigger set pieces are just noisy and messy rather than exciting. The DTS track has a decently separated LFE track, better than the Dolby Digital track, but the centre channel is simply too loudly mixed. In the end the Dolby Surround tracks are probably the least abrasive (though I noticed the Mandarin track was missing some sound effects, specifically a laughing fish). The 5.1 tracks aren't failures, but they aren't needed either.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


Extras


The big extra here, which is apparently also available on the Hong Kong Legends release, is the alternate opening and ending, taken from the original US theatrical cut. I had no idea there was an alternate US theatrical cut. There is some info about this cut on the web, but I never thought to look. Imagine discovering one of your favourite films has an alternate opening and ending ten years after you first fell in love with it. Like an alternate version of The Terminator where Sarah Conner wakes up the arms of RoboCop only to discover it was all a horrible nightmare.

In this truly Americanized alternate version Biao Yuen's character is a student from Hong Kong who faces racial discrimination as a fencing phenom. The entire film proper is his coma-induced dream. The extra scenes total almost thirty minutes, almost erase the opening battle, and are extremely silly. This silly alternate version was called Zu Time Warriors.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


The maddening thing is that this wasn't just some American distributor's way of making the strange film more palatable for Western audiences, Zu Time Warriors is somehow Hark's preferred version of the story. This might be why his later remake/sequel ( The Legend of Zu) was so very bad. Anyway, the scenes are a great extra, especially considering their length and how much they really change the film. Usually alternate scenes are brief and rather the same as the ones found in the final film.

Also included is an interview with star Yuen Biao. Yuen isn't looking too great these days (his 'brothers' Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung have both aged gracefully), but he looks happy and is full of factoids. I knew the film was hard to make based on wikipedia and such, but I had no idea how bad it was until Yuen told me. The interview is pretty long, but it still made me pine for more. I might have to buy the Hong Kong Legends release too.

We've also got some trailers, including one for a special re-release, and a small gallery.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R3 Fortune Star


Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain: Special Edition
R2 Hong Kong Legends


Overall


One of my personal favourites, Zu Warriors begs a viewing from all fans of Hong Kong cinema. People still stuck with non-anamorphic, extra-free R0 discs might want to get around to upgrading some day. Perhaps Dragon Dynasty will offer up a decent edition for R1 someday, but until then it's between this R3 NTSC release and the R2 PAL release.

You can find this, and many other Hong Kong classics at Xploited Cinema.


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