This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
I’ve had a few comments here on my martial arts features asking “Where’s the best place to start with martial arts films?” and I always find myself struggling to answer. The genre’s so broad that it’s hard to know what to recommend – different people will respond to different films, of course – and yet all this time, the perfect answer for Den Of Geek readers has been staring me in the face. If you’ve grown up on the geek diet of comic books, Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings, and the DIY SFX of Doctor Who, then the ideal martial arts starter movie for you is Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain (1983).
Zu was a significant film for the Hong Kong ‘New Wave’ movement that revolutionized the industry in the late ’70s. A disparate group of young filmmakers broke free from the traditional studio system to create weird, energetic and experimental movies that rewrote the rules and addressed (often through outlandish metaphor) socio-political concerns of the era. Tsui Hark was maybe the most distinctive director, bringing to the movement a unique set of sensibilities. Although Chinese, Hark was born and raised in Vietnam, where he learned about Chinese culture through movies and comic books. This heightened sense of Chinese identity would play into his own creations, as would the western influence he picked up at film school in Texas.
Moving to Hong Kong in the early ’70s, Hark made his mark in television before breaking into films with a string of dark, edgy, postmodern takes on classic genres. Although he achieved success with a comparatively conventional comedy (All The Wrong Clues) in 1982, it was his fifth film that would both bring him critical acclaim and shoot him into the commercial big leagues. Zu was made in collaboration with major studio Golden Harvest and took on the most traditional of Chinese storytelling genres: Wuxia (martial heroes). Although other filmmakers were already making updated, high-energy takes on Wuxia (Ching Siu-tung’s Duel To The Death and Taylor Wong’s Buddha’s Palm being the two most awesome), Zu would rip the rule book to pieces, blast it with lasers and send it hurtling into the demon void.
The story is adapted from the classic series of Wuxia novels by Huan Zhu Lou Zhu, written throughout the 1930s and 40s. Hark, never short on ambition, decided to pack as much material as possible from the Zu saga into just one 97 minute film. Detractors will claim this makes it incoherent but I’d argue Hark is in control of his material, despite the often hyperactive plotting.
As a Star Wars devotee, Hark begins Zu with a prolonged chase. We’re introduced to our hero Di (Yuen Biao) as a soldier whose two commanders give him conflicting orders. Unable to choose between them, he upsets them both and they demand that he’s killed. In the fray that ensues, he scarpers and runs right into the middle of an even bigger battle, before falling off a cliff and ending up in a magical cave (a surprisingly common Wuxia trope!).
This cave is populated by creepy creatures that look like Tusken Raiders and Di is almost consumed by them until Master Ting (Adam Cheng), an expert swordsman, steps in to save him. Di follows Ting, begging to become his student, but this leads him into another deeper, darker cave whose floors and walls are lined with the skulls of virgins. Here, they witness a group of Evil Disciples (led by Corey Yuen) raising a hideous Blood Demon that threatens to destroy the world.
To combat this, Di and Ting join forces with a series of other heroes, from a plucky monk (Damian Yau) to an ice countess (Brigitte Lin) and her loyal disciple (a teenage Moon Lee, in her first big role) while an ancient sorcerer known as Long Brows (Sammo Hung) restrains the beast as best he can with a special Sky Mirror. The only way to destroy the Demon is to find the Twin Swords, magical purple and green weapons that aren’t allowed to touch each other and yet are most powerful when they unite (a wonderful little zen riddle).
You still with me? I haven’t even got to the fact that Long Brows gets his name from the fact that his eyebrows are like super-strong silvery tendrils that can wrap around people and lift heavy objects…
So yeah, Zu is a bit crazy. As I say, it starts with a Lucasesque chase but the difference between Zu and Star Wars is that the chase simply never stops. It’s one set piece after another and the diversity of the action ensures that it’s never boring. There’s a bonkers surprise around every corner and the pace leaves you breathless with excitement rather than exhausted. It wasn’t a huge budget picture so the sets have a scrappy, unreal element to them but the style and the energy are off the scale. It’s beautifully shot and lit, its use of bold, primary colours is dazzling, the martial arts choreography (by Corey Yuen) is appropriately superhuman, and the cast is a Who’s Who of soon-to-be-superstars, all giving fantastic, versatile performances.
Although computer-enhanced FX have become standard now, in 1983, Zu‘s were groundbreaking (and unprecedented in the East). Hark put together a team that included westerners like John Scheele, Chris Casady, and Robert Blalack whose formidable credits already included Star Wars, Tron, and Blade Runner. Combining these slick and futuristic visuals with classic, highly-disciplined Hong Kong action created something unique that blew contemporary audiences off their seats. It even directly inspired John Carpenter to make the brilliant Big Trouble In Little China.
However, what makes Zu essential beyond all this is the message. Hark delivers a fully formed meaning that coheres his madcap approach to narrative structure. While made, to some extent, as an allegory for the reunification of Mainland China and Hong Kong (which, in 1983, was at perhaps its most crucial stages), Zu has so much to say even today. Yuen Biao’s hero character rejects the traditional tenets of Wuxia stories – honour, religion, bullheaded loyalty – in favor of simply being good and kind. There are many heroic characters in the film who, with the best will in the world, fail because they let their own pride, steadfast beliefs or personal conflicts get in the way.
Ultimately, only by putting differences aside and working together for the greater good can anything be resolved in Zu. It has a warm, full-hearted message of kindness and acceptance that’s unpretentious and wraps up the narrative like a comfort blanket. Now, more than ever, as the world seems to splinter over the slightest thing, the message of Zu is positive, joyful, and full of hope. As the closing line says: “The world really belongs to the next generation.”
So, like I say, if you’re new to the genre and looking for a way in, here’s your starter for ten. Some of the finest martial arts actors of all time, a bunch of supercool fantasy stuff, stylish visuals, fleeky eyebrows, an inspiring message and a whole heap of Star Wars worship. I pretty much guarantee smiles all round.