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The Taking of Tiger Mountain
|     review    |     notes     |     availability     |
 
THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN
 
Chinese:

智取威虎山3D

 
Year: 2014  
Director: Tsui Hark  
  Producer

Huang Jianxin, Nansun Shi, Yu Dong

  Writer:

Huang Xin, Li Yang, Tsui Hark, Wu Bing, Dong Zhe, Lin Chi-An (original novel)

  Action: Yuen Bun, Liu Guoqing
  Cast:

Zhang Hanyu, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Lin Gengxin, Tong Liya, Yu Nan, Han Geng, Chen Xiao, Zha Ka, Wu Xudong, Zhang Yongda, Xie Miao, Yu Bolin, Zhou Kai, Li Bingyuan, Su Yiming, Mark Du, Hai Yitian, Zhang Li, Xing Yu, Sun Jiaolong, Cheng Sihan, Yuan Wu, Xiao Yi, Wang Yao, Yang Yiwei, Zou Lijie, Wei Jia

The Skinny: Rousing and entertaining wartime action-adventure about a small band of PLA troops who take on a much larger force of bandits. Tsui Hark sidesteps politics to focus on stalwart good guys, ugly bad guys, witty espionage and well-orchestrated 3D action. Not Tsui Hark’s best but that would be asking too much.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Tsui Hark’s recent streak of excellence has been tied to a single genre: the costume fantasy film. Stuff like Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and the Detective Dee movies were perfectly suited to Tsui’s sensibilities, as he could exercise his imagination without being chained to realism or authenticity. That pattern changes with The Taking of Tiger Mountain, which possesses a comparatively recent historical setting rife with political themes, not to mention drab costumes and settings that don’t allow for arresting visual imagery. Also: no flying kung-fu. Tiger Mountain is a tougher nut to crack, and yet in Tsui Hark’s hands, what could have been PRC propaganda ends up a rousing wartime action-adventure, complete with a wily undercover spy, stalwart war heroes and dastardly bad guys who behave despicably and look even worse. Also: a CGI tiger, an annoying little kid and a last-minute action climax that would be right at home in a James Bond movie. It’s not Tsui Hark’s best work, but The Taking of Tiger Mountain has plenty to recommend it.

Based on a novel turned patriotic opera set in 1946, Tiger Mountain details the exploits of a small People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troop who defend a northern China village from a dastardly army of bandits. Led by the serious Captain 203 (Lin Gengxin), the brigade should be fighting the Kuomintang (KMT) directly but end up doing so indirectly, as the bandits are in cahoots with the KMT and fight the PLA on their behalf while also terrorizing local villagers. Multitasking! The bandits are led by pointy-haired villain Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fai beneath tons of make-up), and operate out of a fortress in the Tiger Mountains that used to belong to the Japanese army. Meanwhile, the PLA hunkers down in the small village of Leather Creek, which is occasionally raided by the bandits – just like that poor village in Seven Samurai, if you’re looking for a cross-Asian cinema connection. Looking to liberate the fortress, stop the bandits, stick it to the KMT and also protect the village, Captain 203 and company have plenty of work to do.

Luckily 203 has the help of PLA scout Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu), whose casual kickassery cannot be denied. The fortress is basically impregnable but Yang volunteers to infiltrate Lord Hawk’s gang to figure out their weaknesses and set up a future assault. There’s more at stake than protecting the village – the KMT and Lord Hawk possess or seek numerous maps that lead to hidden resources and even 10,000 catties of gold – but those objects are largely MacGuffins for a David vs. Goliath storyline about a smaller force taking on a much larger one. Much of the map-related intrigue is delivered via quick exposition, and nobody actually follows the maps to figure out where they lead. One might ask why the PLA doesn’t use the treasure map to help Mao fund his “great awakening” or something, but Tsui Hark thankfully never waves his China pompoms. Even the film’s framing sequence, set in 2015 and involving a Chinese man (Han Geng) in New York travelling back to China, is more about family than PLA pride. Tsui Hark butters his bread on both sides here.

Instead of politics, the film concerns itself with smaller human stories, like the subplot involving Knotti (Su Yiming), a young boy who lost his parents to the bandits, and also a vague attraction between 203 and PLA nurse Little Dove (Tong Liya). Knotti’s story is the film’s most emotional, but even his subplot is largely superfluous to the film’s main enjoyment: its espionage antics. Once Yang decides to play spy the film kicks into entertaining high gear, as he heads to the mountain fortress and spends oodles of time convincing the bandits that he’s not a PLA spy even though he totally is one. Numerous times, Yang runs rings around Lord Hawk’s army through his confident wit and bald-faced lies, and Tsui Hark milks each scene for delightful tension and humor. It’s even more entertaining since the bad guys are sneer-worthy types with character design (scars, moustaches, bad hair) that paints them as exaggerated movie villains. Tsui obviously departs from reality in creating Tiger Mountain, edging his “realistic” setting closer to the fantasy worlds that he’s been so successful in.

Ultimately, the story builds towards the assault on the Tiger Mountain fortress, but the journey is more important than the resolution. The outcome is never in doubt (The PLA wins, yay!) so what really matters is how things happen – i.e., how Yang outsmarts the bandits, how the PLA breaks into the fortress, and how the PLA defends the village. Funnily enough, the film actually calls attention to its own storytelling with a brief coda offering an alternative end to the “real story” of Tiger Mountain. The alternative is an over-the-top action sequence, and while it feels a bit tacked on, it’s nevertheless in keeping with the film’s serial adventure tone. The action is also top-notch, with elaborate set-ups and gunplay, particularly during the defense of Leather Creek sequence in the penultimate act. Performances are solid, led by Zhang Hanyu’s charismatic turn as the PLA hero, Tony Leung’s inscrutable take on a pulp magazine villain and Yu Nan’s sultry performance as Lord Hawk’s mysterious moll. Lin Gengxin provides good presence as the righteous captain, while costuming and personality types are used to differentiate the large cast of heroes and villains.

In some ways, The Taking of Tiger Mountain feels like an update of the Tsui Hark co-directed The Raid (1991), which used the Sino-Japanese War as a backdrop for a rousing adventure that sidestepped most political themes. Tiger Mountain also offers impressive use of 3D with plenty of showy moments including slowed-down Matrix-like camera moves plus knives and grenades flying towards the audience. But Tsui also uses the 3D for layered perspectives, e.g., the initial railway station shootout, with jutting steel rails that intrude at every depth level, or a climactic chase down a long hallway. Tsui Hark doesn’t offer anything unique here, but this is a fine mixture of old storytelling tricks and new technology, and an unpretentious pińata of popcorn movie goodness that’s easily enjoyed. Tsui Hark is sometimes called “The Master” and The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a pretty good reminder why. (Kozo, 4/2015)

 
Notes:

• This review is based on the 3D version of the film.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain was originally scheduled for day-and-date release in Hong Kong and China on December 24, 2014. However, the Hong Kong release date was postponed and the film remained unscheduled until it was booked to play the Hong Kong International Film Festival in early April 2015. The film finally opened in Hong Kong cinemas on May 14, 2015.

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Panorama (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital EX
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also available on 2D and 3D Blu-ray Disc
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