Legend of Zu

"Why am I in a film that makes no sense?"

Cecilia Cheung channels Brigitte Lin.

Directed by Tsui Hark

Hong Kong SAR; 2001

Starring Ekin Cheng, Cecilia Cheung, and Louis Koo

104 Min.

In Short: Tsui Hark’s ambitious sequel to his influential 1983 film marks a great leap forward in CG for Hong Kong cinema, but lacks the heart of the original. The immensely convoluted plot doesn’t help the ordeal, but at least the action is well done.

Review: Tsui Hark’s 1983 film Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain is undoubtedly one of the most important films in the history of Hong Kong cinema, holding a similar position to perhaps The Matrix in the United States. Though most would not be surprised to learn I prefer Zu, both revolutionized special effects technology in their relative national cinemas. While its special effects are long dated now, the original Zu is still an enjoyable film for its expert mise en scene and perfectly edited action sequences, not to mention its deft balance of drama and comedy.

18 years later and hot on the heels of Andrew Lau’s (laughable) CGI-enhanced Storm Riders, Tsui decided to create an updated version of his 1983 film with the sequel Legend of Zu, confusingly enough titled Zu Warriors upon its American release (which was curiously produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein). It’s CGI far eclipses that of Storm Riders, and the result thankfully loses the unintended laughs. Unfortunately, it also lost the human themes of the original Zu Warriors which gave the narrative significance to its audience.

The biggest problem with Legend of Zu is that its plot is muddled and confusing. I’m still not sure whether the plot is complex but uninteresting or half-baked and overblown. The film introduces us to a number of characters, many of whom could have (and should have) simply been excised from the plot due to the fact that their story arcs go nowhere. The main plot involves King Sky (Ekin Cheng, reprising Adam Cheng’s role) and Dawn (Cecilia Cheung, reprising Brigitte Lin’s), the former a warrior from Kun Lun (whatever that is) and the latter his master, who disappears for some uninteresting reason. Then there’s the plot involving Hollow (Wu Jing) and Enigma (Cecilia Cheung, again). Enigma is a reincarnation of sorts of Dawn whom King Sky wants to restore Dawn’s memories into. Hollow is destroyed in trying to merge with Enigma to create some sort of super powerful being, and is reincarnated into Ying, who must also relearn all of his Wuxia superpowers so that he, Enigma, and King Sky can defeat Insomnia, some sort of evil monster thing that’s trying to destroy the Omei, one of the clans that resides in the Zu mountain range. Sammo Hung plays the elder of the Omei and the requisite character with long, white eyebrows. His name is Whitebrows. Lau Shun plays some sort of monk who I have no clue what the purpose of his existence is when Whitebrows already exists. Finally, there’s some minor plot involving Zhang Ziyi and Patrick Tam that serves absolutely zero fucking purpose, except to provide a pretty damn good fight scene with Wu Jing. Oh yeah, and Louis Koo has to guard the the Blood Cave, which is Insomnia’s hideout, but Kelly Lin is some sort of tiny evil fairy thing which invades his brain to help Insomnia attack the mountains for some stupid reason.

Are you still with me? Good. I’ve often said that in a visual art form like film, regarding the story as the most important factor is kind of missing the point, but if a narrative need be present, at least have the decency to make it make sense.

Of these plots, the only one that of any real interest is Wu Jing’s plot as Ying struggling to get his Wuxia flying ability and sword technique back. Similar to Yuen Biao’s character in the original, he represents a flawed human eyepiece into a world of magical flying Wuxia masters… or something like that.

The saving grace of this film, which doesn’t necessarily save it, is the action. I’m not normally a big fan of CGI-enhanced battles, but leave it to a collaboration between Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-Ping to create a few that I actually find interesting enough, though the best action sequence, as I mentioned before, is the ground fight between Wu Jing and an obviously doubled Zhang Ziyi. I’ve often thought that Tsui Hark handles action sequences better than any other director in the world (including John Woo), and in this film he shows his stuff: the actions the characters make are clear and easy to follow (unlike the plot), covered in wide shots and an excellent sense of direction in the editing. Tsui allows the camera to keep rolling while Wu Jing struts his martial arts prowess, and even the fight scenes involving CG weapons have enough fluid movement, wide shots, and expert editing to create a visual spectacle.

The CG overall is definitely cartoonish, but in an aesthetically pleasing way, especially when compared to Lau’s Storm Riders in which the CG backgrounds are laughable in their attempts to look real.

The final question is whether or not the elaborate special effects and well-crafted action sequences can make up for the plodding narrative? Not really. The convoluted nature of the narrative makes the non-action sequences simply interminable. Legend of Zu is worth a look, but don’t feel bad if you find yourself hitting the fast forward button. I didn’t, and I feel like I might have wasted a bit of my life by not doing so.

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About Adam DiPiazza
I love Peach Snapple.

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