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June 01, 2015

Taking of Tiger Mountain

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Zhì qu weihu shan
Tsui Hark - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

During the closing credits of Taking Tiger Mountain we see what is suppose to be an imagined alternative ending. The hero, Yang, finds the villain, Hawk, has a secret runway in a huge fortress. Yang attempts to keep Hawk from flying out on a small bi-plane. Yang hops on the plane, barely hanging on, and finally causes Hawk to crash, with the plane and Hawk falling down what looks like thousands of feet off a cliff. This is the kind of action scene one might expect from Indiana Jones, and Tsui makes no secret of his wanting to be thought of as the Chinese Steven Spielberg. As it turned out, that scene was part of the ending that Tsui originally planned and filmed until some government officials requested a scene closer to, if not reality, at least the novel and the Chinese Revolutionary Opera.

The opera and the film versions are based on the Qu Bo novel, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, published in 1957, inspired by Qu's experiences. A member of the People's Liberation Army, Qu fought against the various warlords in Northeast China. Qu married a nurse who was stationed in the same region. Qu was about twenty-four years old when the events in his novel take place, in 1947. There is a young Army leader and a nurse who could well be the literary stand-ins for real life characters. Tsui's film, the third version, might best be described as having been inspired by history, choosing to present the story with some of the more fantastic elements from the previous versions of this story.

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A small band of about thirty soldiers take shelter in what remains of a small village, Leather Creek, virtually destroyed by bandit gangs. After assuring the villagers that no harm will come their way, a bandit is captured, and with him, a map coveted by Hawk, the leader of a thousand man bandit army. The guide for the region, Yang, pretends to be a bandit, and works his way into the castle fortress of Hawk. The fortress is part of the spoils of war left by the defeated Japanese army. The small people's army takes on Hawk's huge force through various means belying their actual numbers.

On his way to Hawk's fortress, Yang fights an impossibly large Siberian tiger. I don't know if the real Yang had encountered any tigers, but the scene was probably created to establish his abilities as a hero appropriate for a national epic. The main villain, Hawk, has a bird-like face with his beakish nose. Tony Leung Ka-fai is unrecognizable with the combination of make-up and a fat suit. Hawk is accompanied by a hawk, like the tiger, oversized, and trained to peck to death any of Hawk's designated enemies. Tsui Hark's films are not known for their subtlety, and some of the exaggeration was probably inspired both by the opera and the 1970 film version that Tsui briefly refers to in a couple of brief excerpts.

Taking of Tiger Mountain was seen as a 3D film in China. What we get in the home video version can only suggest some of what Tsui had done to take advantage of the technology. There are several shots playing with various planes of depth, primarily of the soldiers in the snow, between the trees, as well as the previously mentioned shot looking straight down the fortress edge. During battle scenes, bullets temporarily pause in mid-flight, and blood spurts out and freezes for a few moments. Tsui has eliminated most of the more political elements, primarily to appeal to the contemporary pan-Chinese audience. Some of the historical aspects may be lost for those viewers without some knowledge of post World War II China. Taking of Tiger Mountain may be best enjoyed as a continuation of Tsui's portrayal of fantastic heroes rather than verbatim history.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 1, 2015 07:16 PM