Tuesday, October 6, 2015


Adapted from Qu Bo's novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest, and filmed in 1970, the Peking opera Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy is one of the "eight model plays" canonized during the "Cultural Revolution" in the last decade of Mao Zedong's rule over China. The model plays were meant to counter bourgeois influences in popular culture, but as remade in prose and 3-D late last year by Tsui Hark it looks a lot like a western. That's not because of the period, because the story's set in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Presumably it's not because of any conscious or unconscious aping of American western genre motifs by any of the creators -- with Tsui Hark possibly excepted as a veritable sponge of influences -- because the main plot point, the thing that reminds me of westerns, is based on fact. Yet the story and setting are more evocative of the American west in many ways than what you get in kung fu or wuxia movies that are sometimes thought of as China's westerns. Specifically, The Taking of Tiger Mountain reminds me of "town tamer" westerns, where the subject is the bringing of order to a realm of violent anarchy. And who's more qualified to play the role of the bringer of order than the Chinese Communist Party?

They call it "Tiger Mountain" for a reason.

Take my snark with a grain of salt, though, because you can watch Tiger Mountain and hardly know, except for the references to "PLA," who you're rooting for. While the opera, if not the original novel, presumably had some didactic propaganda content, Tsui Hark's film is practically ideology-free. Mao's name is never mentioned, and nobody in the picture makes the case for communism. Moreover, Mao's great antagonists, the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-Shek, are relegated to the sidelines here. Tiger Mountain's PLA is less a revolutionary army than a band of brothers (and a few sisters) determined to bring order, not topple it. Their enemies in this story aren't the Kuomintang, though they loom in the background, but a warlord and his bandit army. Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fei) has seized an arsenal abandoned by the Japanese and made himself a power in the north of China, living large by plundering the poor peasants. While the Kuomintang tentatively negotiate with Hawk at arm's length, the People's Liberation Army is determined to break Hawk's power, end his oppression of the helpless peasants, and seize his weapons for the bigger fight to come.

A sort of Lord Hawk did exist, it seems, though he most likely wasn't as bizarre looking as Leung, who's made up to look like a Dick Tracy villain. The comic book simile seems apt since Tsui Hark now strikes me as the man who should have directed the long hoped-for, now forgotten project of a movie version of the Terry and the Pirates comic strip. Tiger Mountain is a big color Sunday page of a movie; the only thing missing is the Batman-style onomatopoeia popping off the screen in three dimensions. The main story is a comic-strip sort of story that you mostly saw in westerns. One of the good guys, Yang Zirong (a real person played by Zhang Hanyu) penetrates Tiger Mountain's defenses by infiltration, pretending to be a bandit whom no one in Hawk's camp, conveniently enough, has seen before, yet bearing expected, important information. Yang goes through the usual tests of loyalty while struggling to preserve his secret. In addition, he must also rescue a captive woman (Yu Nan) who's the mother of the film's lovable scruffy kid. The outcome is certainly never in doubt for Chinese audiences, so the drama is what Tsui Hark, one of the pioneers of modern Hong Kong (and hence global) action cinema, will do with a story that is presumably beloved but is possibly also thought of as hokey relic of a repressive time.

  Zhang Hanyu as larger-than-real-life hero Yang Zirong

Tsui Hark appears to address the hokeyness issue with a framing sequence set in the modern day. It begins in New York as hip Chinese celebrate the New Year with karaoke. One young man feels nostalgic at the unexpected sight of (I presume) a clip from the 1970 Tiger Mountain movie. He's inspired to go home to China, and there's one poignant moment as the film dissolves from the rugged wilderness treks of 1946 to the modern man's comfortable journey through the same landscape on a high-speed train. This little bit is more effective propaganda for the current Chinese regime than any indoctrination the film might have intended. As one might expect, our traveler has some connection to the characters of the main story. In fact, as a mawkishly upbeat coda suggests, he's linked to all the heroes of the story. If you thought the framing sequences of Saving Pvt. Ryan were corny, avoid this film at all costs.  

Tiger Mountain might best be described as a Spielbergian take on the Chinese Civil War in the old, now slightly unfair pejorative sense of the word, without the gritty pseudo-realism of Spielberg's own war movie. Tsui retains an almost puerile enthusiasm for CGI and 300-type action effects. In a typical gimmick, he'll follow the path of some missile to where an explosion has already taken place, only to reverse time so we can see the actual explosion. Do kids still dig this sort of thing? I'd think they'd take you right out of the movie, but I suppose Chinese audiences aren't looking for gritty realism, regardless of the setting from a film based on Peking opera. Tsui can still put together some impressive set pieces; the most successful is the bandits' ski attack on the peasant village occupied by the PLA and their attempt to break out of a PLA trap, the running house-to-house battle putting fighters on both sides in constantly fluctuating from snipers and bazookas. Throughout, the director seems to have struggled with conflicting impulses: whether to show the action straight or amp it up with effects or crazy stumps. The final scene is his confession that he never actually resolved the conflict. It's actually an alternative ending of the main story, the showdown between Yang Zirong and Lord Hawk. He'd filmed it simple the first time, but calls a do-over so he can add a running fight on the wings of an airplane, a cliff plunge, and a Saboteur homage to the sequence. But by now who cares about all this showing off? It's no more than Tsui Hark shooting himself in the foot in his zeal to entertain, or his anxiety that he hasn't entertained enough. Overall Tiger Mountain is a somewhat childish but harmless romp, elevated by a fine heroic performance by Zhang Hanyu, so long as you don't think of what happened twenty years rather than sixty years later, but that ending leaves you thinking of the thing as a botch because it looks like Tsui thought he'd botched something. A film about a communist revolution for a communist audience ought to show a little more self-confidence. You'd think the government would have insisted on it.

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