OK, I said I’d do a few posts about Tsui Hark‘s The Taking of Tiger Mountain – so here’s the film review, or an attempt at it.
Let’s start with the plot.
As mentioned in a previous post, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is based on true events: in the winter of 1946, in North-Eastern China, a unit of the Chinese People Liberation Army tackled a local warlord and his army of bandits.
Then, a novel, an opera, a movie – and in 2014, The Taking of Tiger Mountain.
Tsui Hark’s take on this classic of historical adventure turned Cultural Revolution mainstay is framed as a movie-within-a-movie: in the prologue, Jimmi – a young hotshot Chinese programmer on his way to Silicon Valley – catches a glimpse of the 1970 version of the movie, and decides to re-watch it.
What we see, therefore, is the 1970s movie through the eyes of a post-Communist young man1.
Ergo, the somewhat stiff and overstated 1970 film turns on the screen into a Spielbergesque high adventure entertainment.
In 1946, in North-Eastern China, the thirty men under the command of a revolutionary officer only known as 203 (Kenny Lin) face the ruthless one thousand cutthroats under “The Hawk” (Tony Leung), a local warlord that has taken control of leftover Japanese army materials – a fortress, a tank, loads of weapons. And yes, a huge quantity of gold.
Entrenched in a snowbound village, the PLA men recognize the odds are against them – and one of them, infiltration specialist Yang (Hanyu Zhang), proposes a daring plan: he will join the bandits, and work on the inside, undermining the warlord’s forces and finding a weak spot in the fortress defences.
What follows is a classic espionage plot – the undercover man has to step carefully, sneaking in the graces of the men and the officers, avoiding the traps the Hawk sets for him.
Meanwhile, the 30 men in the village must keep the warlord’s troops at bay, using courage and ingenuity.
It has been noted that, for a 2 hours and a half action thriller, The Taking of Tiger Mountain features only four proper action set pieces – and yet the impression is of relentless action. The direction is that tight.
Everything about the movie looks great – the costumes, the locations, the set-pieces.
Sticking to the original plot, the good guys are exceptionally heroic, while the bad guys are extravagantly crooked and ruthless, looking the part thanks to weird make up and effects (but part of the make-up reminds us of traditional villains in popular, pre-Revolutionary fiction).
Indeed, the bad guys should instantly realize Yang is a spy, simply because he is the only one in their fortress that looks like a dashing hero and not like a scary gun-toting freak.
The story piles subplots on the viewer – there’s a young orphan in the village, that gets adopted by the soldiers; there’s a loose woman in the fortress that’s actually just a victim of circumstances. There’s spies and escaped prisoners. There’s a lot of desperate logistics. The cards of friendship and betrayal are laid on the table as the match develops, and finally all is set, and the final confrontation takes place.
And yet, despite the complications, the plot is nicely straightforward.
The characters are cliché, but nicely so – each one is fully characterized, and true to type.
Revealing that the heroes win, the Hawk kicks the bucket and justice and Revolution triumph is no spoiler.
There’s a lot of spurious references in the movie – there’s a lot of stuff that should have been there but was cut in the Cultural Revolution: the bad guys are the stuff of legends, almost literally, and they look and act like villains from an adventure novel. And what motivates the heroes is plain old decency, and not some clean-cut Revolutionary spiel2.
Because we are seeing this through the eyes and imagination of young Jimmi, remember, and the kid has a few surprises in store for us.
One of these is his willingness to re-imagine the story, and in particular the ending of the story.
Yes, Yang and the Hawk have a final showdown.
Two, in fact – and in the last finale, historical accuracy and propaganda get dumped for all-out, amp-turned-to-eleven pulp-style action.
And this is very interesting, because while his movie digests all the sources of the story – from the novel to the opera, to the movie, by way of classic literature and wuxia cinema – Tsui Hark in the end drops all pretenses and plays the ending of his film for what it is, and always was: the triumph of adventure, a game in which good and evil fight to the death because that’s the way it should be, and screw ideology.
It’s not the first time Tsui Hark operates a situationist detournement of Maoist propaganda – his Peking Opera Blues is a Revolutionary propaganda movie (young idealists versus old reactionaries) that drops the revolution and roots for adventure and thrills instead.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain sticks to the Party line all the way through, but in the very last minutes turns to the viewer, winks, and explodes on screen in a long I’ll-thrill-you-to-death action sequence.
One wonders what the censorship commission and the PLA film production company (that footed part of the bill) might have thought when the film was screened for them.
And indeed, one can see why the pyrotechnic finale is presented as Jimmi’s fantasy and not as the true ending of the movie – it was probably the only way not to get the censors rabid.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a great adventure movie, a beautifully-filmed historical film, and a wonderful way to spend two hours and then some.
- this creates a nice ironic subtext, and was missed by many Western reviewers, who simply missed the references and in-jokes due to their lack of familiarity with the 1970 film. We should try and remember that this we are seeing is the 1970 film, filtered by a modern young man’s imaginarium. ↩
- and as usual, some the weirdest bits – like the prisoners transformed in dogs – turn out to be historically accurate. ↩