DIRECTED BY: Tsui Hark
FEATURING: Yuen Biao, Adam Cheung, Damian Lau, Mang Hoi, Moon Lee, Brigitte Lin, Sammo Hung
PLOT: In the midst of a civil war, soldier Dik Ming-kei (Yuen Biao) is threatened by generals who want him to follow contradictory orders, and whose solution is to sentence him to death. He deserts and falls in with Master Ding Yan (Adam Cheung) who saves him from supernatural forces. Dik wants to be Ding’s pupil, but Ding isn’t interested; an attack by the Blood Devil and his disciples brings in Master Hsiou You (Damian Lau) and his acolyte Yi Chen (Mang Hoi), but Hsiou doesn’t like Ding and can’t work with him to defeat the Blood Devil. Therefore, Dik and Yi team up after both Masters are poisoned by the Blood Devil and Ding succumbs to the Dark Forces.
COMMENTS: 2001: A Space Odyssey lit the fuse for cosmic films where special effects took center stage. Star Wars was the inevitable explosion of the trend. The 80s were a time when technology supported genre-based projects, doing what couldn’t be done before, supported by young directors and technicians who were hungry to show their stuff. That’s why some now consider it to be a golden age of genre film. That spirit wasn’t just limited to films made in the West, as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain shows.
Calling Zu the “Star Wars of Chinese cinema” is dead on. Tsui Hark may not be George Lucas (thankfully), but he was a film-school brat like Lucas and had previous feature experience: Zu was Hark’s fifth feature, Star Wars Lucas’ third. Both took material that they loved from their childhoods and upgraded/synthesized it for a contemporary audience: Lucas from “Flash Gordon” and other serials, Hark from historical fantasy (“Legend of the Swordsmen of the Mountains of Shu“) and Chinese action films. Hark also imported special effects people from America to assist the production, names familiar to effects geeks who grew up on those post-Star Wars films: Robert Blalack (Altered States, Robocop), VCE Film’s Peter Kuran (Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer), Chris Casady (Airplane!, The Empire Strikes Back). (All of them also worked on the original Star Wars.) Like Star Wars, Zu kicked off a huge change in the local film industry. It practically was the flash point for the fertile late phase of the Hong Kong New Wave.
Unless you were a major fan of kung-fu films, often watching 5th generation VHS dubs, most audiences in the U.S. got introduced to this kind of material via Big Trouble in Little China—and most audiences at the time weren’t ready for that. As good as China is, compared to Zu, it’s methadone vs. pure uncut, mainlined heroin. Watching Zu 40 years after it came onto the scene was exhausting—but in a good way. It’s almost non-stop set piece after set-piece, but it does take time to breathe. And while Star Wars only offers brainless entertainment, Zu gives the viewer plenty to chew over along with all the eye-candy action. At the start, Dik is either threatened by those in authority or is dismissed by those who have the power to help and refuse to. It’s when the establishment figures fail that Dik and his allies step up and take control to defeat the evil: “woke” way before woke became a thing.
Eureka Video issued a Region B Blu-ray of Zu in 2020. This year, Shout! Factory brings out a Region A release that ports over quite a bit from the Eureka release and adds some new features. Returning is the 2K restoration with a commentary on selected scenes from Tony Rayns. There’s also the alternate “Export Cut,” Zu: Time Warrior. This English-dubbed version adds a framing story set in Hong Kong that sets things up as a variation of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”; it’s notable mainly as a reminder of garish 80s sweater fashions. Also ported are interviews with actors Yuen Biao, Moon Lee and Mang Hoi from 2002, and an hour long interview with Hark from 2020.
New to the Shout Factory package is a feature length commentary by Gilbert Po and Sean Tierney (a fun listen), two featurettes with academics Victor Fan and Lin Feng, and an interview with Peter Kuran, visual effects consultant.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Shedding the veil of heightened reality to get to the weird, nutty centre underneath serves this martial arts fantasy incredibly well. The madcap silliness of each new character and scenario is liberally slathered with tongue-in-cheek humour that is executed as rapid-fire as the narrative itself.”–Daryl Bär, Battle Royale with Cheese [Eureka Blu-ray]