by Victor Pryor

Even if he had only ever been responsible for the delirious fever dream that was JCVD’s Double Team, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark would have earned his place in the Action Movie Hall Of Fame. But Hark’s filmic output has multiple classics to his name, including Peking Opera Blues, Green Snake, and the good Once Upon A Time In China movies.

In some circles, Hark is known as the Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong. But this has always been an odd comparison. While Spielberg is a master of cinematic form and exquisitely composed thrills, Hark is a relentlessly experimental director, stylistically restless and endlessly playful. He’s the mad maestro of pop art action cinema.

Yet for of all that, he’s never quite gotten his proper due in the states.

That The Taking Of Tiger Mountain isn’t the film to make that happen isn’t in any way a criticism; it does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to be highly entertaining. But it might just be too offbeat for an audience used to movies where tigers don’t climb trees to sneak up on people.

Which is absolutely a thing that happens here.

Interestingly enough, the film is, is, in its own way, the Chinese equivalent of the mindless Hollywood blockbuster remakes people so often complain about. It’s based on The Taking Of Tiger Mountain By Strategy, a 1970 film that was adapted from one of the eight model plays which was, in turn, based on the 1957 Qu Bo novel ‘Tracks In The Snowy Forest’.

FUN FACT: The 1970 version is one of the most watched movies in film history, according to Chinese statistics; if their claims are to be believed (insert grain of salt here), every single citizen in China saw it at least seven times between 1970 and 1974. in fact, failure to attend multiple showings was considered politically suspect.

(On a personal note, I can relate to this: people flip out when they find out I’ve never seen Scarface…)

Tiger Mountain is a war story, though it doesn’t actually take place during World War II but in 1946, during the Chinese Civil War that immediately followed. It details the efforts of the People’s Liberation Army to defeat an army of bandits holed up in a nearly impenetrable fortress atop the snowy peaks of the titular peak.

War movies in general are a dubious source of frivolous entertainment, particularly in this modern era. Knowing what we know about the nature of war and its effects make the visceral thrill one is supposed to feel from violent action seem more than somewhat distasteful. But perhaps due to the cultural remove, and certainly due to the fact Hark is painting in very broad strokes here, it’s one of the rare modern war movies that functions extremely well as fun, escapist entertainment.

Because make no mistake; this is a cartoon, through and through. In an interview on the disc, Hark describes the story as “playful” and “lighthearted,” and notes that he removed the “sermons” from the film in order to make the characters more relatable and human. They’re not mouthpieces; they’re people.

Well, archetypes, really, but it’s the thought that counts.

Unlike a lot of the genre films coming out of China these days, there’s a refreshing lack of of politics and didacticism here. This is clearly intended to be an upbeat, purely enjoyable ride with not much in the way of actual substance. And in a full-bore effort to keep to that agenda, Hark has stripped out everything that might lead to boredom, up to and including a lot of character beats in general. Using the technique of narrative shorthand, Hark powers through a lot of the gristle that slows these sorts of epics down; he knows viewers know the basic beats, and can fill in the blanks for ourselves.

To be fair, this isn’t an uncommon technique. Hollywood blockbusters have been doing this exact sort of thing for at least the past decade. But where in America, the stuff cut out is usually replaced with a stultifying portentiousness, Hark keeps it fast and light.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about The Taking Of Tiger Mountain is that the movie isn’t just a war movie.

It’s also Point Break.

Tiger Mountain combines the usual tropes of war films with the usual tropes of the undercover cop movie, as Yang (Zhang Hanyu) goes undercover in the bandits gang in a desperate mission to stop the bandits once and for all.

Past that, the plot isn’t really worth getting into. There’s the Mcguffin of the Advance Map, three maps that… well, it’s not entirely clear what they’re for. They either indicate strategic posts or show all the hidden ammunition depots or have the power to summon a powerful Japanese army (which seems like the last thing China would want to do, but whatever). In the end, it doesn’t really matter, as the maps become irrelevant pretty quickly.

The story quickly boils down to Yang trying to keep from blowing his cover while down below in, his fellow soldiers defend the small outpost of Leather Creek and its citizens from the marauding bandits.

Pretty much every beat you can imagine from both the war movie and the undercover cop film are all here, playing out exactly how you’d expect. The only ones notable in their absence are the doomed soldier with the girl waiting for him back home; and surprisingly enough, Yang never has to endanger his fellow soldiers in order to keep his cover. There’s one moment where it seems like that’s happening, but it turns out to be a fake out that seems wildly ill-advised on the part of the baddies.

As with most war movies, the cast doesn’t make much of an impression. They have soldier-y names like Tank, Brick, Steel Wrist and… er, Leggy… but aren’t given much in the way of personality. As the ostensible main hero, Yang does a bit better, but still only just manages to hold the center. There’s even an annoying kid sidekick, as can sometimes happen in these sorts of stories.

But the real show is Lord Hawk, as played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Unrecognizable with his prosthetic nose that makes him resemble an actual hawk, Leung is gloriously hammy and wonderful here, a cartoon villain that steals his every scene.

The show here, is, of course the action. And it is some very impressive action indeed. The snowy climes of Tiger Mountain lend themselves to some unique action scenarios, which are, as is typical of Hark, dynamically filmed and executed.

(Also as typical of Hark these days, there’s some rather dodgy CGI. But it manages to be charming instead of clunky.)

While most of the action is of the slow-mo gunplay variety, there are two important things which should be noted. One, there’s far more skiing here than one is inclined to expect in a war movie; and two, an actual, non-mountain tiger shows up. And climbs a tree.

I know I brought this up earlier. But I think you’ll agree it bears repeating.

Fun as it all is, though, it has to be said that a war movie is hardly the proper place for Hark’s more flamboyant tendencies as a filmmaker. And indeed, aside from an undated variation on the old bullet time gimmick (which must have looked amazing in its original 3-D format… blockbuster, remember?) and a wholly gratuitous shot as literally seen thru the eyes of a hawk (Not Lord Hawk, but Lord Hawk’s pet hawk because of course he has one), there isn’t all that much stylistic experimentation. It’s Tsui Hark pitched directly towards the masses, with his usual bizarre flourishes only spurting out in drips and drabs.

Happily, he saves his most bizarre flourish for the end.

Without going too heavy into spoilers, the film suffers from an utterly superfluous framing device, as the story is being remembered by a young man about to leave China to start a new job in Silicon Valley. His connection to the events of 1946 I will leave for the viewer to discover, but the literal double fantasy that ensues is a headscratcher of the highest order. It’s endearingly corny, thunderously goofy, and utterly compelling, all at once.

Which does a decent job of describing the movie overall. It’s not perfect (some might have more of a problem with the rough-looking CGI than I did), but it’s still a blockbuster of a stripe that Hollywood just can’t get the hang of anymore. It’s different, fun, and exciting.

On second thought, maybe those Spielberg comparisons weren’t totally off the mark after all…

NOTE: The version of the film I received lists a running time of 107 minutes. The actual running time of the film is 142 minutes.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Interviews with the director and cast; trailers


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