Tsui Hark conjures an all-out actioner from a late 1940s-set story about a People's Liberation Army soldier infiltrating a clan of bandits
Another week, another Chinese blockbuster emerges to revisit and reinvent the country's 20th-century ebbs and flows. Compared to John Woo's shipwreck of a wartime romance The Crossing: Part One and Jiang Wen's scattershot satire Gone with the Bullets, Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain — based on a 1957 novel about a communist soldier's battle of wits with bandits during the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s — is a straightforward spectacle motored by relentless high-octane action sequences between simplistic heroes and grotesque villains. Amid the blinding visuals and ear-splitting firepower made available to Tsui by his 21st century special-effects team, his adaptation stays very close to the simplistic moral binary that shapes its source material — hardly a surprise, as Tsui counts among his backers the August First Film Studio, the Chinese military's movie-making unit.
It's unlikely August First, which produced the first film adaptation of Qu Bo's Tracks In A Snowy Forest in 1960, would have allowed Tsui to inject even a modicum of unruliness into its protagonist. Such nuances, however, are crucial in giving The Taking of Tiger Mountain some contemporary relevance, with its plot revolving around a good guy trying to destroy a criminal clan from within — a premise brought vividly to life in Chinese-language cinema during the past decade through films such as Infernal Affairs or The Message, two works that clearly influenced The Taking of Tiger Mountain in terms of both narrative (the mole finding an unlikely ally among the hoodlums he's commissioned to obliterate) and mise-en-scene (the undercover agent play-acting with a femme fatale to fool those eavesdropping from outside).
Perhaps the producers' decision to leave out the last two words of this story's original title, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, stems from more than just the need for a simpler handle: The Taking of Tiger Mountain is, indeed, more about an artillery-fuelled assault than tactical mind games. This reliance on pomp and bluster seems to have worked for those craving festive viewing in China, as the film (released mostly in 3D in the country) secured $51.1 million at the box office during its first five days of release. The 2D version of the film will open in the U.S. on Jan. 2.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain is originally merely a section in Tracks In A Snowy Forest, a novel based on a real-life Chinese Red Army platoon's missions in a brigand-infested Manchuria after the end of the Second World War. The central character here is Yang Ziyong (Zhang Hanyu, The Message), a surveillance officer who volunteers to infiltrate a gang of outlaws exerting regional control from a heavily fortified castle. Having found his way into the den and up the gang's hierarchy, Yang is put to the test by monstrous leader Hawk (Tony Leung Kar-fai, Election), one of his tools being Qinglian (Yu Nan, The Expendables 3), the woman he abducted from a village in a raid.
It's a shame the script doesn't provide Zhang, one of the best actors working in China today, with a more complex character to play; the possibilities shown in the first part of the film, with him appearing as some kind of unseemly rogue in a well-regimented military unit, are never followed up, and the character becomes an immaculate, one-dimensional uniformed hero like his unit commander (Lin Gengxin), the nerdy and self-sacrificial boy-soldier (Chen Xiao) and the angelic nurse (Tong Liya).
Interestingly, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is also a showcase for a modern Hong Kong/Chinese artist's struggle to navigate creative leeway within the confines of the establishment. This contradiction is manifested most explicitly in the awkward, 2014-set sequences bookending the film, as a Chinese university graduate called Jimmy (Han Geng) is seen watching, mesmerized, the 1970 version of Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy in New York, and then elects to head back home to northeast China — where Tiger Mountain takes place — and "re-imagine" his own version of an incredible, over-the-top final showdown between Yang and Hawk.
In effect, Jimmy's wild take on the story, stuck on to the end of the film as a 10-minute coda, is very much what Tsui (who has spoken of watching Tiger Mountain for the first time while studying in the U.S. in the 1970s) would have wanted to include, but couldn't. His challenge of reinventing the unique art of revolutionary Chinese operas, and bringing his brand of nationalism up to date, continues.