Film Review: Tsui Hark’s “The Taking of Tiger Mountain”

“Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy,” adapted from Qu Bo’s massively popular 1957 novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest, is one of the best known of the eight “model operas,” or yangbanxi, of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Set in 1946 during the Chinese Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and the Kuomintang (KMT), it was first adapted for film in Xie Tieli’s 1970 feature of the same name and was one of the most widely watched movies of all time, mostly because it was one of the few produced and allowed to be shown during this period.

Now, master action-film director/producer Tsui Hark has revamped this source material and turned it into “The Taking of Tiger Mountain.” His third big-budget 3D extravaganza after “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” (2011) and “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon” (2013), “The Taking of Tiger Mountain” was released in China in the final week of 2014 and is currently topping the box office there, poised to repeat the massive success of its predecessors. The 2D version is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and a few other U.S. cities, and will expand to others in the coming weeks.

Unlike most of Tsui’s previous works, in which breathtaking and eye-popping action setpieces were based on elaborately constructed practical effects and acrobatic martial arts skills, “The Taking of Tiger Mountain” and his other recent films are mostly dependent on CGI. Tsui’s adoption of 3D literally adds an extra dimension to this, allowing him to be even more extravagantly outlandish in the imagery that he lends to his scenarios. This makes his recent films almost approach animation in the way he blends the CGI with his human actors and physical sets.

This approach can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, as “The Taking of Tiger Mountain” abundantly illustrates. The use of 3D has allowed Tsui to fully indulge his penchant for overloading the viewer’s senses and providing the sort of thrills that can be most fully appreciated in a big-screen presentation. On the other hand, the heavy dependence on CGI takes away from the human touch and physical display of action skills that were a hallmark of such earlier Tsui films as “Once Upon a Time in China,” “The Blade” and “Time and Tide.”

Despite this being a period film, “The Taking of Tiger Mountain” begins with an almost literal present-day scenario that acts as a frame for the historical action. In 2014 New York at Christmastime, Jimmy (Han Geng) celebrates his college graduation with a group of friends in a karaoke bar. He plans to go back to his hometown in China to spend New Year’s – presumably both the Western and Chinese ones – with his family. As a gag, someone at the bar puts on the original film version of “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” instead of one of the karaoke videos. A mesmerized Jimmy watches; “Tiger Mountain” happens to be set in the same place as his hometown. Later, stuck in a cab during a traffic jam on his way to the airport, Jimmy views a Youku upload of the film on his smartphone.

This leads into the period retelling of the “Tiger Mountain” story that takes up the bulk of the film. The CPC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 203, a small platoon of about 30 soldiers led by Captain Shao (Lin Gengxin), is tasked to gain control of Tiger Mountain, which houses an arsenal of weapons left behind by the Japanese. This arsenal is currently controlled by a gang of bandits – who seem to have backing from the KMT – lorded over by the fearsome Hawk (a nearly unrecognizable Tony Leung Ka-fai), so named because of his resemblance to his namesake bird, hooked nose and all. Shao and 203’s task is made more difficult by their limited weapons, the harsh snowy terrain, their rapidly dwindling food supply, and the general havoc wreaked by the bandits, who take advantage of the PLA vs. KMT chaos to loot and terrorize the villages surrounding the mountain.

Arriving by train to assist 203 in their mission are Agent Yang (Zhang Hanyu) and army nurse Bai, nicknamed Little Dove (Tong Liya). Soon after this, the unit captures a KMT soldier who possesses a valuable military map of the area, one which was intended to be given to Hawk. Yang offers to infiltrate Hawk’s camp by posing as a bandit from another gang who wishes to join Hawk’s people. Although Shao initially mistrusts Yang, as he comes across than less disciplined than a PLA soldier should be, he decides to go along with the plan, since they really have no better options.

It can be easy to get confused by the labyrinthine plotting here, which also involves Hawk’s kidnapped concubine Qinglian (a vampy Yu Nan), who uses her feminine wiles to try to escape Hawk’s clutches, and who has a son she was forced to leave behind. Unbeknownst to her initially, this boy has been taken in by the PLA unit; her son was a stowaway on the train that brought Yang and Little Dove to the mountains. There’s also Yang’s machinations within the gang, in which he’s tested by those suspicious of him to prove his loyalty, and he must appear to fight his fellow PLA soldiers. Yang eventually forms an alliance with Qinglian; an emotional undercurrent to all this emerges when Qinglian learns that her son is with the PLA, which intensifies her efforts to escape Hawk’s gang.

There are a number of well-staged shootouts between the PLA and the bandits, with lots of bullets and CGI blood flying at the viewer. The action set pieces get ever more outlandish as the film progresses, with Yang fighting a tiger in the treetops (with animatronic effects by Jim Henson’s Creative Workshop), soldiers mountain skiing during a battle, culminating with an Indiana Jones-worthy scene involving a plane and a snowy mountaintop.  Thrills such as these, as well as more nuanced human drama than in the overtly propagandistic original film, ensure that Tsui Hark’s version feels truly modern, rather than simply a warmed-over Mao-era chestnut. This makes the present-day frame feel tacked on and unnecessary, even though it reveals Jimmy’s relationship with the characters in the historical story, and features an end-credits do-over of the final scene, an analogue to the “print the legend” ethos of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Also, even though the PLA are the heroes of the piece just like in the original film, the bandit villains are often much more colorful and interesting, especially in a sartorial sense, than the gray-uniformed virtuousness of the PLA. This can be fruitfully read as Tsui’s sly way of undercutting the reverential propaganda inherent in the original source material.

Unfortunately, although those seeing the film in China, and presumably other areas of Asia, will be able to experience all this in its full 3D splendor, unlucky viewers in the States will only see a 2D version. This is quite frustrating, since most of the film’s effects were specifically designed to be seen in 3D, so viewers in the U.S. will be literally lacking a dimension to the very impressive action that lends nervy immediacy to its wartime period setting. This action helps the film to overcome some of its flaws, such as its being somewhat overlong (it runs nearly two and a half hours), and its dizzying narrative turns and reversals, which can feel muddled and a bit confusing, especially to those unfamiliar with the history depicted here. But for all the film’s weaknesses, in this post-New Year’s movie season which, save for awards-hopeful prestige pictures, can be a time of cinematic doldrums, you could do much worse than “Taking of Tiger Mountain” for a sufficiently diverting time at the multiplex.

“The Taking of Tiger Mountain” is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire 25, as well as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas. For more information, as well as other cities that will show the film in the coming weeks, visit the distributor Well Go USA’s website.