Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 04, 2015 8:08 pm 
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Zhang Hanyu in The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Civil war and wild CGI in the frozen Chinese north

The Hong Kong master of the Chinese blockbuster presents a middling example of his art in this remake of a Cultural Revolution patriotic tale starring Tony Leung Ka Fai. It's not his best but it has some new wrinkles, particularly in the period and the locations. Conspicuously designed with in-your-face effects for its big set pieces in 3D for the Chinese market, it has been released in 2D in the US. The gritty post-WWII Chinese civil war action adventure extravaganza is framed by the brief bookend of a young Chinese student in New York -- he's at a Chinatown karaoke club with pals as the movie opens -- who goes home for Christmas vacation inspired by a '70's movie adaptation he's glimpsed on TV of the Cultural revolution patriotic opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The bulk of the film, with its period military costumes and shivering renegades, is this young man's flashback imaginings based on the film he's seen. Its basic premise of fighters helping villagers could be seen as a nod to the plot of Seven Samurai.

So the main action starts out like this, as summarized by Derek Elley, the Asian film reviewer who knows the history inside and out: "Northeast China, Heilongjiang province, Jan 1946. Following the resumption of the Chinese civil war after the surrender of the Japanese, bandit groups have been rampaging throughout the area, partly in collusion with KMT forces who use them to halt the PLA. In snow-covered forests near the Mudan (Peony) River, a starving PLA troop commanded by Captain Shao Jianbo, codename '203' (Lin Gengxin), is battling to wipe out the bandits. It takes on a group of renegades, loyal to local warlord Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-fai), from which two manage to escape alive." See the rest of Elley's detailed summary on Film Business Asia. Besides retailing the plot meticulously, Elley understands the context of renewed civil war in China after the defeat of Japan better than I do.

There are a lot of plot elements, but what we need to grasp is that bandits are rampaging in the post-war situation here in the frozen north, and the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese nationalist party troops, are using these scruffy micreants to block the PLA, the communist People's Liberation Army. We begin with scenes in the bosom of a starving unit of the PLA commanded by (handsome) Captain Shao Jianbo, secret code name "203." These PLA troops will take on bandits headed by local warlord Lord Hawk. Early on, at a desolate train station, the PLA group is joined by Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu), an experienced (and handsome and bearded) scout from the PLA's political division, and a (sweet and pretty) field nurse, Bai Ru (Tong Liya). Loudly in evidence also is Jiang Shuanzi (Su Yiming), a wild (later cute and adorable) boy with unruly, Struwwelpeter hair, a survivor of recent bandit attacks on his village. There is much ado about a certain Advance Map giving locations of thousands of fighters stationed all around in the north, which the KMT want to use to get Lord Hawk's cooperation.

Lord Hawk is an extravagant character with a beaky prosthetic nose who first prances onto the scene bearing aloft his live emblematic bird of prey. Leung Ka Fai, who plays this dramatic villain, also played Detective Dee in Tsui's more elaborate and energetic Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which I saw in Paris in 2011. That one refers to remote Chinese history, its unique female ruler. Perhaps it can better get away with its utterly fantastic action because it all takes place so very long ago. The action in Tiger Mountain seems more preposterous because Hark's wild imagination is applied to the relatively contemporary 1940's. In his AV Club review Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out how cartoonish the baddies are in this movie, how far-out its 3D-emphatic set pieces are. He calls Tiger's CGI "gelatinous" and notes the special effects are "compellingly imaginative without being remotely convincing." Interestingly. Elley thinks the opposite: that the modern setting gives this movie a "more grounded feel" than other Tsui costume dramas, and authentic local flavor. In fact the wintry, mountainous locations are striking, and local cast members are employed (plus a couple of South Koreans doing key production work). Even Elley admits some things are far-fetched, such as an over-the-top battle between Yang and a supersized animatronic Siberian tiger (way less good than Ang Lee's Life of Pi), a spectacular and gravity-defying 3D-designed covert raid on skis on Lord Hawk's mountain lair, and a no-holds-barred finale, not to mention an "alternative finale" (Tsui's original version rejected by the Chinese censors) slipped in halfway through the lengthy end titles. Anyway, whereas with Phantom Flame the look was fiery and sparkling, here winter dominates, troops starve and shiver, bullets fly and blood spurts, darkness hovers, and men seem garbed in heavy burlap.

Tsui is reworking corny twentieth-century political pseudo-folklore just for the fun of the extravagant set pieces, and the emotion and sentimentality are pasted on. Most of the cast are mainland except the grotesuely made up Tony Leong Ka Fai. Yang is the hero, going under cover to gain access to the Tiger Mountain lair where he outwits enemy Lord Hawk. Sometimes a mini-narrative element is suddenly dropped; it's hard to tell how we get from one scene to the next. The fun isn't in the plot but in the little details like picking up scraps of food off the ground, the Mad Max-ish wigs, shaved heads, fur eye patches, etc., the clouds of steam from mouths and other signs of extreme cold, the amusingly obvious humanizing efforts like the nurse and little boy. Unfortunately plot is important, and we can't survive on mise-en-scène and colorful characters alone, no matter how good. Or can one? Here, from minute to minute, one almost can. Tsui Hark puts on quite a show. But the whole is less than the parts.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain, 141 mins., debuted in China 23 Dec. 2014, opened in NYC 2 Jan. 2015; it has been in the Hong Kong film festival and was screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival, where it plays 26 and 30 April.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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