It was in 1983 that Hong Kong director Tsui Hark ("Time and Tide") had his first big break and international hit, "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (Shu San)". Combining Chinese mysticism and martial arts, this fantasy film featured high production values that were unheard of in the Hong Kong film industry and utilized top special effects talent from Hollywood. Though "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain" was somewhat lacking in the script department, it won a legion of fans both at home and abroad, and earned the title of being the 'Star Wars of martial arts' (a title that has subsequently been applied to last year's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").
Now, eighteen years later, Tsui Hark revisits the mystical mountains in China's Sichuan province in "The Legend of Zu (Shu shan zheng chuan)", which arrived on import VCD last weekend after its theatrical run in Asia this past summer. Details about the film's North American release are still sketchy, but given Miramax's extensive involvement in the production (yes, that's Bob and Harvey and Weinstein of Miramax Films that you see as exec producers in the opening credits), a stateside release in some shape or form is likely. Unfortunately, "The Legend of Zu" is even shorter on plot than its predecessor, being little more than an overblown collection of special effects in search of a story-- what one disgruntled commentator on the Internet Movie Database calls "The Legend of Poo".
The story takes place in the Zu mountain range, where immortal beings have made a home in the floating palaces of Omei. Unfortunately, this ethereal kingdom is under attack by an evil being named Insomnia, and it is up to the god-like warriors of Omei to save the day. Led by the wisdom of their white-haired sifu (Sammo Hung of "Mr. Nice Guy"), swordsmen King Sky (Ekin Cheng of "Tokyo Raiders") and Red (Louis Koo of the "Troublesome Night" series) defend Omei against the onslaught. They are also joined by the lovely Enigma (Cecilia Cheung, seen recently in "Shaolin Soccer"), who may also be the reincarnation of King Sky's former teacher. What then follows is an epic clash between good and evil, underscored by romance and self-sacrifice...
... or so you would think. Unfortunately, instead of the mother of all martial arts films, Tsui Hark ends up with a whopper of whale with "The Legend of Zu". Pretentious, confusing, and emotionally cold, "The Legend of Zu" suffers from the conspicuous absence of a story. In its stead, the film consists of little more than uninteresting characters with no depth whatsoever spouting purely expositional dialogue against the backdrop of overdone computer animation before they are spontaneously consumed by flame (I kid you not). The main characters essentially spend two hours dealing with a series of successive crises that are arbitrarily thrown their way, which they deal with using equally arbitrary solutions. For example, at one point, after the failure of an attack on Insomnia, the grand master of Omei declares that he must go into another dimension to solve the problem and then disappears out of the movie. Another scene has King Sky entering a domain populated by memories for no good or convincing reason, only to catch on fire and fall out of the sky. With writing like this, even 1998's "The Stormriders", another spectacle-over-substance martial arts fantasy, seems like high art.
Story problems aside, one of the dubious selling points of "The Legend of Zu" is how it incorporates an unprecedented level of computer animation into a Hong Kong film. True, Tsui Hark brings this world of immortals and demons to life with some artfully-done computer-generated backdrops and special effects in every scene of the film. Unfortunately, the animation is not that sophisticated, and its use quickly reaches a point of overkill, serving more as a distraction. And those expecting "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-style martial arts will be disappointed by what "The Legend of Zu" has to offer in the action department. With the exception of the film's one truly decent action sequence (where an army of demons carry out a ground assault on Omei), most of the fight scenes quickly degenerate into a video game as combatants hurl balls of fire and thunderbolts at one another ad nauseum.
Given the lack of developed characters, the actors are given little to do other than furrow their eyebrows and deliver their lines as tersely as possible. Cheng and Koo deliver workman-like performances as the stoic defenders of Omei, while Cheung seems to have problems synching up her line of sight with the computer animation. Supporting performances include a 'special appearance' by the ever-popular Zhang Ziyi (seen recently in "Rush Hour 2"), though her role in the film ends up being rather trivial and pointless (stunt casting, perhaps?), and Kelly Lin ("Full-time Killer") in a brief appearance as a sprite with a hidden agenda.
For those of you Hong Kong film aficionados who have been in eager anticipation awaiting the arrival of "The Legend of Zu", the film will serve as a bitter disappointment. After having spent the last two decades as a powerful creative force behind some of the most memorable films of the Hong Kong 'New Wave', it is almost inconceivable how Tsui Hark could come up with such an unwatchable and pretentious bore as this. 'Legend of Poo' indeed.
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