24 December 2014

On Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Tsui Hark's latest film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, opens today in China. It premieres in major U.S. cities on January 2.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain begins in the future at a karaoke bar in New York City. I was not expecting that. It is 2015 and a young man is being fĂȘted on his last night in town before heading west for a lucrative job in Silicon Valley. In between karaoke performances, the television plays a clip of the Peking Opera performing a version of the famous Tiger Mountain battle. This fleeting vision fills the young professional with homesickness. As he sits in the backseat of a cab on the way to the airport, the film flashes back to 1946 where a country is trying to regain order in the wake of war.

What we see over the next two hours is not really history. It's more like folklore that's been filtered, inflated and bastardized across generations like a childhood game of telephone. The source material for Tsui's film is not a textbook but a novel, Tracks Through the Snowy Forest, which winnows messy history into a hero's journey. This is first and foremost an action film and a cleverly crafted one at that. All of this unreality is made explicit by a fascinating coda that manages to both strain the limits of credulity while also deepening the underlying humanity of everything that came before it.

Long before the conclusion, however, we know that we're inhabiting a fictional world. After the introduction, the film judiciously cuts back to the future just once more before settling down in 1946 for good. This temporary temporal break helps detach us just enough from the text to observe it on explicit storytelling terms. Meanwhile, in the fictional heart of the film lies an outsized villain calling himself Lord Hawk. Hawk is the most fearsome bandit in the region, whose dominance of the land is almost assured once he possesses three Advanced Maps that will unveil the locations of riches and weapons. Hawk is played in a larger-than-life performance by Tony Leung Ka-fai. The first several scenes with Hawk have him obscured by shadows and underlings, showing just glimpses of his hulking mass and yes, pet hawk. Once his visage is unveiled he recalls nothing more than classic Spider-Man villain, The Vulture.

Hawk's stronghold on the region is so decisive that the Liberation Army has no choice but to conduct a potentially suicidal mission to overthrow him, by sending one of their own, Yang (cooly played by Zhang Hanyu) to infiltrate Hawk's compound and set himself up as a spy. He sells himself as a man exiled from another fearsome bandit and he presents Hawk with one of the coveted maps as proof. The film then divides itself up between scenes of Yang nimbly working his way up the chain of command and scenes back at the camp of the PLA, where among other things a young orphan is taken in and an opium-smoking thief is captured. Oh yeah, and there's a lot of action.

The film is clearly building to the climactic siege that gives the film its title. And while that battle is exhilarating and bombastic, with lots of explosions, slow-motion, and bedlam, it's the preceding attack by Hawk's men on the army's camp that is the greatest sequence in the film, action or otherwise. This preceding scene is less dependent on computer-generated whimsy and succeeds thanks to smaller scale ambushes and resonating on a deeper emotional level. This is the scene that reminds us war is hell, not some game of cops and robbers.

For the most part the CGI is solid and well integrated within the film. Perhaps the worst offender comes during a fight between Yang and a Siberian tiger as they chase one another through snowy trees. But who's going to complain about having to watch a fight between a gun-toting badass and a tiger? The aforementioned coda also breaks the bank with its preposterousness but as described above that sequence is intentionally insane and is what gives the film its purpose.

This is a film celebrating history by populating its narrative with bullet time, pulp villains, and characters named Tank. If that's not a true sign of patriotism, I don't know what is.