The Legend of Zu

Reviewed by YTSL

Back in 1983, Tsui Hark introduced Hong Kong movie viewers to the fantastical world of “Zu:  Warriors of the Magic Mountain”.  Although quite a few individuals hail that pioneering work as a masterpiece, I have to confess to not having checked it out yet (for a number of reasons, including my fearing that I’d find its undoubtedly dated special effects to be too cheesy for my tastes).  Instead, my introduction to the Zu universe has come by way of a newer Tsui offering that is not a sequel, prequel nor an actual remake of the now 50 year old auteur’s earlier epic – that starred the likes of Adam Cheng, Yuen Biao, Moon Lee and Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia -- but, rather, looks to be a different imagining of that fantasy space somewhere in and above Sichuan, and its god-like – in terms of the supernatural powers they possess, if nothing else -- warring “good” and “evil” clans.

While viewing – and being befuddled, when not bored, by -- THE LEGEND OF ZU, there was a part of me that wondered whether Tsui Hark was expecting that whose international rights have been acquired by Miramax’s audience to be intimately familiar with the story and characters he has put onto celluloid.  In any case, I definitely felt that I was crucially missing an explanation re why the piece’s good guys and gals could be as automatically assumed to be such as they evidently were (beyond the fact of their coming in the form of the likes of Ekin Cheng and Cecilia Cheung, and one of the two characters Cecilia Cheung portrayed being made up to look very much like the Ice Countess essayed by Brigitte Lin in “Zu 1”).  Similarly, while the not terribly menacingly named Insomnia was obviously intent on gobbling up the powers possessed by the different Zu clans, I fail to be convinced that his/her/its ambition made him/her/it scarily evil to the point of being anywhere near Lucifer’s league.
Without this surely fundamental contextualizing framework, the often visually spectacular battles waged by not particularly well-named heroes and heroines like King Sky (Ekin Cheng plays the sole survivor of a deadly attack on the Kun Lun Clan), Enigma (this one character of Cecilia Cheung is the wielder of the female gendered Heaven Sword), Red (Louis Koo portrays the Omei Clan’s head student) and Thunder (Jacky Wu’s character’s Thunder Sword is the yang twin of Enigma’s Heaven Sword) against a shape-changing Insomnia (whose physical manifestations include one essayed by Kelly Lin) lack a true imperative and sense of urgency.  On account of THE LEGEND OF ZU not having much more plot besides the one in which nominally good clans are threatened by a force they perceive to be evil and consequently deciding to band together to put a stop to its growth and movement through plus across their realm, this presented a real problem – which manifested itself as a mind-numbing result -- to this (re)viewer.
On balance though, I think that my (previous) lack of knowledge about the Zu universe might well be for the best; what with my having a strong suspicion that many who hold dear the first Zu film will really hate THE LEGEND OF ZU for sullying the image – and their memories – of the offering that could be said to have sent Tsui Hark on the road to what he is today:  I.e., a respected individual among Hong Kong movie-makers, albeit one who has yet to successfully break into Hollywood proper.  Something else worth keeping in mind is that many of the presumed members of Miramax’s proposed audience for the prolific and ambitious Tsui’s latest – and surely most CGI-laden ever – offering will be equally, if not more, ignorant than me with regards to the Vietnam born director’s previous fantasy creation(s).  And while it could be argued that much of the impact of Ang Lee’s now (in)famous martial masterpiece was derived from many of its effects and ideas being so very novel to those who had not been fans of Hong Kong movies and/or reading wuxia works, here’s pointing out that the seriously boring wanna-be epic whose opening credits list Harvey and Bob Weinstein among its producers is light years away from being this (or next) year’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in transnational -- plus American art-house to multiplex -- cross-over possibility and overall quality.
Although Tsui had Yuen Woo Ping as THE LEGEND OF ZU’s action director (and Zhang Ziyi – in a blatantly commercial move -- among its cast members), the fights in this movie are more likely to bring to mind video game affairs than any wire-enhanced -- but still human powered and often gravity-bound (even if people behave like they’re on the surface of the moon rather than earth) -- battles.  Despite  Poon Hang Seng and Herman Yau being two of the lengthy (feeling) effort’s three credited cinematographers, most of what appears on screen looks less to be their output than that which was generated by computers and (those) technicians whose instincts are more mechanical than artistic in nature.  Additionally, the one returnee from the 1983 “Zu” cast -- Sammo Hung, playing a similarly long-eye browed character known here as White Brows – only succeeds in showing people that he possesses more than just a larger amount of physical weight than all of the generally disappointing film’s other principal actors and actresses (among whom number a couple of Cantopop idols, a former male model and someone who was but an aspiring ballerina not so long ago).
One question that undeniably will be on some minds, post reading this review and/or viewing THE LEGEND OF ZU is:  Has Tsui Hark lost his magic touch?  While I dearly do hope that this is not the (permanent) case, it cannot be denied that few of his works after “The Chinese Feast” and “The Blade” have been commercial mega hits and/or critically acclaimed.  While I don't dislike this uninspiring fantasy film as much as "Time and  Tide" (a manic offering I had such adverse reactions to that I can't  bring myself to spend time and effort writing a review for it), I can't  say that this sleep-inducing - and in a Mongkok cinema, to boot! – work has (re)assured me that the man who played a big part in making me the  Hong Kong film fan(atic) that I am is anything like the master auteur of  earlier decades.  Indeed, until he stops playing with computers and  being fixated with (visually) impressing rather than communicating,  commenting, educating, enthralling or just plain entertaining, I see no  reason why I should opt to view his current and future output instead  of, say, the just as - or maybe even less - CGI filled and dependent  "Jurassic Park 3" and its often equally soul-less Hollywood ilk.

My rating for this film:  4.5