Legend of Zu
Hong Kong 2001
Directed by Tsui Hark.

Great fantasy films are few and far between. And those that are great, are almost always deeply flawed. The original vision in such enchanting pictures such as THE DARK CRYSTAL and LEGEND continue to amaze, despite the fact that the movies themselves are rather weak. So too with LEGEND OF ZU, a film which manages to create a whole other world of immortals who never die, not completely, fighting battles that last for eternities. In the end, Tsui Hark succeeds all too well, as we lowly humans have trouble relating to the problems and concerns of the immortals onscreen. Action packed, but somber and subdued, this is pure fantasy, a creation of unfettered imagination, an awesome spectacle that floods your cortex with s-fx stimuli until you shut down your sense of wonder, and find, like the immortals, that the world is a desolate and unconsoling place.

Yet for all that, LEGEND OF ZU is considered a failure -- especially at the box office. Why should we be surprised? The Blade flopped, but was brilliant. Green Snake -- a classic, also didn't do very well. The original Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain was #119 in the box office rankings of that year, while the long forgotten film Let's Make Laugh was number 4. These days, Hong Kong moviegoers seem to be flocking to feel-good comedies like Needing You and Love on Diet, and generally spurning innovative productions like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Legend of Zu.

What makes Tsui Hark a great filmmaker is the pursuit of his own personal vision. But instead of using art house aesthetics, he saturates his film in the language of pop culture. When a movie looks like Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom but feels like Schindler's List, people tend to stay away.

Take Legend of Zu. I watched this for the first time last Friday. I have still not recovered. Sometimes, I just sit there, going through every option on the DVD. A subtitled "Making Of.." featurette, cast descriptions, and interestingly enough, character descriptions. The trailer. Sometimes I skip out to a chapter and watch a bit. I dug out Zu: Warriours from Magic Mountain and watched it again to compare (which is very interesting...). I've done everything but sleep with it under my pillow.

It's such a strange creature. With CGIs absolutely flooding every second of every shot, the closest American film to compare it with is Star Wars Episode 1, The Phantom Menace. Which is so fitting: after all, Zu Warriors was in many ways inspired by, with special effects by, creators of the original Star Wars films.

But unlike Phantom Menace, Legend of Zu has no Jar-Jar Binks to lighten things up. It has no amusing announcer to narrate a race. In fact, it is largely without humor of any kind (you know -- the kind of humor which completely ruined Phantom Menace). The action, though near constant, does not thrill like a roller coaster ride. Instead, it too contributes to a generally dark mood. Legend of Zu, beneath all its special effects, is a very, very depressing film. It looks into what it is like to be eternal, and finds that it is a lot like getting lit on fire and plummeting to Earth. Love is a distraction, which draws one away from the path of perfection. Death, if it occurs, is only temporary, until you are reincarnated from the pool of souls once again. Without deep human connections, without fear of death nor love of life, what is it to be immortal?

This, clearly, is not what most filmgoers like to go to the movies to ponder. No, the preference is for Andy Lau in a fat suit.

Another turn off for Legend of Zu is the no doubt un-faithful adaptation from the book. At least, I can only hope that Tsui Hark was not faithful to the book -- I really hate it when directors do that. More preferable is for an artist such as a Director to add their own contribution to the material. However, not everyone agrees with this philosophy of film adaptations, so no doubt many fans of the book were disappointed at Hark's re-imagining.

My only complaint is that the movie is far, far too short. I wouldn't take out a second. But we needed at least another 20 minutes for Zhang Ziyi's character and her relationship with Duan Lei (Tan Yao-Wen) to develop. I could have used some more time for the development of Lian Xing (Wu Jing), too, another richly drawn character with little to do.

All in all, I believe Legend of Zu will gain fans, many fans, in the years to come, and twenty years from now, when people look back at the box office records for 2001, they will be surprised to find Legend of Zu low on the list, and wonder who ever heard of Love on Diet.

Side Notes:

It was very interesting to go back and watch Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain again after watching Legend of Zu. I noticed a lot of things:

* Those who remember Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain being filled with much more real combat, and less posing and special effects, think again. Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao square off in the opening scenes, but once the Sword Immortals fly in, that's it. The two films are pretty even in terms of real vs. SFX-fu.

* Both films seem incomplete, like they could have had so much more, but for whatever reason, don't.

* Adam Cheng's character from Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain is equivalent to Louis Koo's character in Legend of Zu. Watch especially for the moment in Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain when his sword fans out into dozens of swords before flying back to him. Special effects have come a long, long way since then.

In the original Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain, the Sword Immortals were completely incomprehensible. They each squabbled over their petty factions, each had powers beyond the comprehension of mortals. But the human world was divided into meaningless factions as well. To a large extent, this was part of the theme of Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain -- we are factionalized, but the differences between us are far less than our similarities. But the elder Immortals and generals can't figure that out -- it's up to the new generation, the young, to come together over old prejudices. There are a lot of political connotations to this message, but perhaps also there is something more personal. Tsui Hark was part of the "New Wave," and bringing in new ideas. The kids have come in and were doing it their way. So the idea of the young, untried warriors stepping up to save the day was very much in step with the idea of the new generation of directors breathing new life into HK Cinema -- which he certainly did.

These days, he's a lot older. He is a grandmaster of cinema, despite the fact that few of his films do well. When he returned to the same ground, why wouldn't he now look at the seniors -- the Sword Immortals, and have a new interest in telling their story instead. The petty factionalism, so omnipresent in the original, is here downplayed. In the original, the older generation behaved like a bunch of lunatics. Here, he is more sympathetic. They have their good days, and they have days when they just light on fire and crash to earth (you know, like Knock Off -- but then, maybe I'm taking this metaphor too far).

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 13, 2004.

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