Monday, December 29, 2014

The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Tsui Hark Does it with Strategy

Qu Bo’s war novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest was adapted as the revolutionary opera Taking of Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the so-called “Eight Model Plays” allowed to be staged during the Cultural Revolution. After years of frustration, Tsui Hark has finally realized his big shiny capitalistic adaptation of Qu Bo’s source novel, but the good guys are still PLA soldiers and the bad guys are not. The powerful outlaw Lord Hawk is about to learn he is on the wrong side of history in Tsui’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

It is the bitter cold winter of 1946 and warlordism plagues northern China. PLA Captain 203 and his troops have been dispatched to restore order, but they are outmanned and outgunned. For reinforcements, the Party sends him Little Dove, a cute medical officer, and Yang Zirong, a political and intelligence officer, whose exact brief is rather vague. After helping the Captain shore up the most vulnerable village lying in the foothills of Hawk’s mountain stronghold, Yang announces his plan to infiltrate the band of brigands posing as a notorious but seldom seen member of a rival gang. Capt. 203 is not exactly crazy about the plan, but he signs on anyway, since there is no stopping Yang. Of course, he will need Yang’s intelligence when Hawk finally decides to attack the village.

Wisely, Tsui never lets any of his characters jabber on about historical dialectics. Aside from a few snarky comments about the Nationalists, there are not a lot of ideological identifiers in Tiger Mountain beyond the obvious uniforms. However, a contemporary descendant of one of the survivors often watches Xie Tieli’s 1970 film treatment of the Revolutionary opera, giving us several quick tastes of its didacticism.

Frankly, if you are going to tackle any of the Eight Model Plays, it might as well be Tiger Mountain, because nobody is in favor of banditry. Tsui stages some suitably big action spectacles, including the big mountain plane crash that factors so prominently in the trailer and one-sheet, but he puts it in the darnedest place, thereby sacrificing much of its suspense. It really feels like it was tacked on at the last minute to justify the expense of 3D.

Given its propaganda roots, it is not so very surprising most of the Tiger Mountain characters or more like symbolic types than fully developed individuals. Still, Zhang Hanyu (terrific in both the under-appreciated Equation of Love and Death and the otherwise problematic Back to 1942) plays Yang with grit and roguish panache. Tong Liya’s turn as Little Dove is also both sensitive and energetic. “Big’ Tony Leung Ka Fai chews on plenty of scenery as Lord Hawk, but unfortunately, Yu Nan never seems to quite unlock Qinglian, his involuntary mistress. However, her presumably orphaned son Knotti is like a human emergency brake, bringing the narrative to a screeching halt whenever he is on screen.

It is not often you can see a film with apostolic links to Madam Mao and the Gang of Four that features an animatronic tiger developed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, but here it is. One could perhaps debate who has done the coopting in Tiger Mountain, but the real point is the action, which is decent but never approaches the level of Tsui’s spectacular Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. If action fans can tune out the political implications, it is an okay as a quick snack, but it will not be a crossover breakout, like The Raid franchise, by any means. For loyal Tsui fans, The Taking of Tiger Mountain opens this Friday (1/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.