When I went to went to see Brotherhood of the Wolf, one of the trailers that ran before it was for Zu Warriors (2001, aka. The Legend of Zu). Coming Soon to a Theater Near You.
Not so fast.
Cut to four years after the honcho's at Miramax nixed the theatrical release and locked the film away in their vaults like some royal families mutant stpechild, and we now see the film dumped direct-to-DVD-land. This would seem like an unfair thing to happen to a big budget foreign film with an all-star cast made by one of Hong Kong's signature directors. But, when you actually watch the film, in either the abbreviate English dub edit or the full HK cut, you realize, be it tv or theater, Zu Warriors isn't likely to be welcome on anyone's screen.
When Tsui Hark decided to revist (not remake) his 1983 film Zu Warriors From Magic Mountain, it should have been a good- scratch that- a great idea. The 83' Zu Warriors is usually tagged as a breakthrough HK film. Actually, it is an off the wall fantasy picture, the likes of which Chor Yuen (The Enchantress, Legend of the Bat) had been making for years. The only reason it is tagged as a breakthrough is because in terms of its scale and fx, the 83' film did kick things up to another level and, as HK moved into a different action age, it ended up being a sort of swan song for that type of fantasy action for awhile. As a matter of fact, that is the basis of Tsui Hark's golden age as a director, the ability to not so much to kickstart a genre trend but to be on the forefront of the curve and deliver a superior product. It wasn't that Peking Opera Blues was the first, modern, female-driven action flick, it was just that it was great. It wasn't that Once Upon a Time in China was the first wirefu, new wave action film, it was just that it was head and shoulders above the others.
To explain why the 2001 Zu Warriors doesn't work, I think I have to continue talking about Tsui Hark's career. After years being assaulted with a rough and tumble kind of action films, in the mid-90's, HK audiences started to develop different, one could say, more refined tastes. Overall, the industry saw a massive amount of change and a lean towards more polished films and glossy, teenage to twenty-something pop idol stars. Like most of his contemporaries, the 70's and 80's era HK directors, Tsui Hark found himself at a crossroads, tried some dramatic comedies, made the US move with some terrible Van Damme flicks, he just seemed at a loss, and went from being a commercial audience commander to a panderer.
That seems to be the impetus behind Zu Warriors. It is like Tsui Hark watched Storm Riders and thought, ‟Hey, I can make fantasy-swordplay flicks like the best of em'. And with all this modern computer technology I can really do anything I want.‟ And, in theory, there is no reason it shouldn't have worked. If, in 83', he used the best technology and fx available at the time in HK and elsewhere to make a fantasy action film, why wouldn't it work to apply the same principle and dedication to today's technology? The only answer I can discern is this: It isn't 1983, time has changed everything about the environment and the man, Hong Kong is no longer the same place, and Tsui Hark is no longer the same film maker.
The specifics of the story don't really matter. The dynamics are not much different from Jason going after the Golden Fleece, Monkey going West, or the concoctions from Arabian Nights. Zu Warriors is a typical mythological fantasy melange of good on a quest to defeat a great evil. The Zu Mountains are a place where several bands of eternals live. An evil force called Insomnia (or Onyx in the English dub) has returned to kill them off. White Eyebrows (Sammo Hung) the leader of the biggest clan, Omei, gathers the forces of good to combat Insomnia which is hiding out in the Blood Cave and draining their power. You've got good guys like King Sky (Ekin Chang), Red (Louis Koo), Thunder (Patrick Tam), Enigma (Celia Cheung), Ying (Jacky Wu), and an unnecessary sideplot role for Zhang Ziyi. Mystical swords are supposed to be united, people die and are reborn, people are possessed, captured, and so forth.
The first film had a similar, hectic, all over the place fantasy mishmash of a story. But, what the first film had that this one does not, is a sense of fun and adventure. Everything in Zu Warriors, save Jacky Wu's comedic relief character, is stone-faced serious and largely devoid of humor or energy. It is an odd choice to make such gleeful, imaginative fantasy so goddam dry, but that is precisely what Tsui Hark and company did. The whole cast seems to be phoning it in (Ekin Chang, our lead, is no more than a windswept haircut). No doubt, acting in front of a green screen had the actors thinking that the effects around them would probably be enough to reel in the viewers.
On that final note, if you were to just look at the trailer, like I did in that theater four years ago, you'd think Zu Warriors looked like a bright, eye-catching bit of fantasy fun. People fly around beautifully painted CGI landscapes. Lots of pizzazz. Weird weapons. A bunch of pretty people playing the part of heroes. But the end result is wall-to-wall fake . It relentlessly throws one over the top action setup to another, all to the point of overkill. Twenty minutes in, Zu Warriors wears out it's welcome and becomes repetitious- Bit of exposition- Flash! Bang! Fly! Fight!- Bit of exposition- Flash! Bang!- rinse and repeat. Like the worst of computer effect driven action cinema, you get the sense of action without consequence, action without soul. And that precisely sums up the film. Zu Warriors is totally soulless, an exercise in technology and little else that makes for engaging cinematic fantasy. It was enough to make me pop in Buddha's Palm, have a giggle, see a decent blend of silliness and enthusiasm, and wash away the bad taste of empty fanasy cinema.
The DVD: Miramax.
Well, take away my purist foreign film lover card for what I'm about to write. Like the Miramx DVD release of Shaolin Soccer, they continue their newer policy of giving you two versions of the film, their English dub edit (1 hour and 20 mins) and the full HK/Cantonese version (1 hour and 44 mins). In this case, I have to go with the Eng dub edit. This is the kind of film that benifits from a tighter pacing. The film is truly too long and there isn't that much lost in the edit other than some of the thin plot threads that just bloat out the running time.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, obviously when you chuck two versions of a CGI heavy (heavy isn't a strong enough word actually) film onto one disc, you are going to get some problems that lessen the bitrate and generally degrade the details a bit. That said, while there is some compression, at least the prints are fine. The film is a dazzler, bright, colorful, and aside from some minor noise levels and slight low contrast, both versions of the film look fine.
Sound: Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or English 2.0 Surround. Optional English or Spanish subtitles. Well, it is kind of fitting they nailed the fx sounds for the movie but didnt pay as much attention to the dialogue. The only minus is that there are some post-dub bits on the Cantonese version where the lip synch isn't perfect. The fx and score gets robust sound treatment, plenty of whiz-pow! Surround workout. The English dub on the edit isn't half-bad, the actors doing their best with some hammy material.
Reading around various Asian cinema forum reviews, I recall a lot of people saying the China Star disc had really bad subs full of grammatical ‟Engrish‟ errors and untranslated bits of dialogue. With its zany plot, I can only imagine how difficult that would make this film to watch. Thankfully that is not the case here and viewers get some excellent subtitles, well-timed, legible, grammatically sound, and very easy to understand.
Extras: Again, you get two versions of the film, which in my book is more than enough, but in addition there is a ‟Making Of‟ Featurette (18:34). The featurette shows a good deal of behind the scenes footage and covers a lot of ground from interviews with the actors, fx people, and Tsui Hark doing his best to explain the mythology of the film.
Conclusion: Well, it should have been a film of wondrous action in mystical places and instead what you get is a grossly digitized, lifeless muddle of HK fantasy. Miramax does a decent job with the disc, catering to both kinds of foreign film viewers, the traditionalist, sub reader and the lazy, dub favorer. This is one of those cases where I think this is a ‟skip it‟ film with a ‟recommended‟ disc, so I'll play it safe, aim down the middle, and suggest it as a rental for the curious.