Review: The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Disclaimer: I watched this 3D movie in 2D on a small screen, so some of the original effect may have been lost.

Chinese action director Tsui Hark‘s The Taking of Tiger Mountain is perhaps the last film I expected to see at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Hark’s version is one of many takes on a real incident that occurred during the Chinese Communist Revolution. It’s hard to say if his film is based on the Qu Bo novel about the incident, the Peking opera based on the Qu Bo novel, or the earlier film based on the opera. Clearly, this story is a popular one in China. When you watch this film, it’s not difficult to see why it made it past the censors. In many ways, it’s a traditional action flick: over-the-top visual effects, long fighting sequences, snappy plot-driven dialogue, irrepressibly virtuous good guys, single-mindedly wicked bad guys. Action films are rarely controversial, but it also helps that the good guys are fresh-faced, earnest Communist revolutionaries and the bad guys are Guomintang-backed warlords.

As the story goes, the cruel Lord Hawk (Tony Ka Fai Leung) and his gang of outlaws are sitting on a treasure trove of Japanese munitions and resources pillaged from the innocent villagers of the surrounding countryside. Though severely outnumbered, a small ragtag group of Communist foot soldiers, hoping to free the poor commoners of their bandit scourge while capturing the weapons (as well as some strategically important and ill-explained maps) for the Communists, plan to overcome the warlord at his heavily protected fortress, Tiger Mountain. Luckily, pluck, ingenuity, and the mysterious undercover agent Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu) sent from Central Command are on their side. With Yang comes the lovely medic Bai Ru (Tong Liya) (and if this were a Hollywood movie, there would be a cheesy love story to go along with her character; alas, in this Chinese flick her beauty is wasted on heroic deeds). A feisty and vengeful bandit-orphaned ragamuffin completes the cast of good guys. (On the bad guy side you basically have Lord Hawk and a bunch of extras.) Throw in a little tension between the straitlaced commander 203 (Kenny Lin) and Yang and you have yourself a movie.

Is the film an unabashed exaggeration? Yes. Are scenes that seem irrelevant or gratuitous (but for their self-indulgent special effects) sprinkled throughout the movie willy nilly? Yes. But thankfully Tiger Mountain is not a picture that takes itself too seriously. Once you understand and accept what you’re watching, you can settle in for a jolly good ride.

By the way, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s playful take on an alternate ending–an unconventional twist for an otherwise fairly conventional picture.