Kaiju Shakedown: Taking Tiger Mountain
“Carry the tiger, pull the horse” might be the “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” of modern Chinese cinema. Coming right in the middle of Tsui Hark’s Taking Tiger Mountain—a blockbuster war flick that has earned close to US$112 million at the Chinese box office in just two weeks—the line is a perfect example of the kind of high-level absurdity that Tsui dishes out by the plateful, right alongside tiger attacks, prisoners transformed into human dogs, a Lord of the Rings–scale mountain fort, bandits sporting black lipstick and facial tattoos, ski attacks, lots of grenades, a tank, a fight on top of a crashing biplane, and a New York City traffic jam.
It’s easy to take Tsui’s talent as a filmmaker for granted, but we really shouldn’t. A mid-movie scene of a snow-covered village being invaded by bandits on skis is executed with clarity, authority, and total confidence. Even the least generous Western critics have noted that the film is a superb showcase for Tsui’s spectacular setpieces, and these days his kind of craftsmanship is so rare that it gives the illusion of a movie that’s nonstop action, when in fact there are only four action scenes in its entire two-hour-and-22-minute running time.
Starved for good filmmaking, most people seem to be loving Taking Tiger Mountain, but one of the few things critics have consistently singled out as being lame is its modern-day framing device, and it’s true that any movie in which an African American cab driver bangs on his steering wheel and says, “Merry your mother Christmas,” should spend a little bit of time in the corner. But the framing sequence is what makes it more than just another action film about brave Chinese triumphing over the enemy. It’s what makes Taking Tiger Mountain a Tsui Hark film.
Tiger Mountain opens in 1946 with a bunch of People’s Liberation Army soldiers tracking down a bandit, Hawk (played by Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Kar-fai), who has set up shop with his 1000 murderous minions in a mountain fortress abandoned by the Japanese. Setting up camp in the mostly abandoned Leather Creek village at the base of Tiger Mountain, PLA captain Shao Jianbo captures an opium-smoking crook named Luan, who was in the middle of bringing the Advance Map to Hawk. This McGuffin shows the location of hidden troops, secret arsenals, and treasure depots stashed by the retreating Japanese. Shao’s 30-man PLA unit has recently welcomed Nurse Bai and a new scout, Yang Zirong, to their ranks and it’s decided that Yang will disguise himself as a bandit, take the map to Hawk, and infiltrate his gang as a trusted henchman, destroying it from within.
The movie is based on a single incident in the 1957 novel, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, by Qu Bo, who really was a soldier tasked with rounding up bandits in northeastern China after World War II. At the time, combat novels describing the struggle of the revolution were popular, and Tracks was the biggest of them all, selling millions of copies. Books like Tracks, Raging Flames and Adamantine Warriors (58), and Guerrilla Forces of the Railroad (54) were presenting the heroics of lone scouts (Yang Zirong in Snowy Forest, Xiao Fei in Raging Flames) who were stand-ins for wuxia fiction’s wandering swordsmen, while being written in accessible, colloquial language. Despite having to be rewritten a few times to purify its ideology, Tracks was adapted into one of the first Chinese operas to tackle contemporary themes in 1958. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, supervised revisions of the opera, titled Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and her version appeared in 1964 at a huge national Peking Opera convention where it won the approval of top officials and, after several more revisions, it was selected as one of the Eight Model Revolutionary Works in 1966. One of the few operas allowed to be performed during the Cultural Revolution, it swept the country and Yang Zirong became a national hero, especially after the film version was released in 1970. This is the version Tsui remembers seeing in New York’s Chinatown as a student—the incident which sparked his desire to make the new film.
Hark’s Taking Tiger Mountain opens with a re-creation of this formative viewing in Chinatown rather than the PLA soldiers on the hunt. A misty-eyed sap named Jimmy tromps through a snowy Chinatown to meet some buddies at karaoke. They’re all young, wealthy Chinese kids about to start working for tech start-ups, full of beer and braggadocio, completely uninformed about their roots, and when a glitch in the karaoke machine shows a scene from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, everyone laughs except Jimmy, who stares at it in awe. On his way to catch a flight to Silicon Valley his cab gets stuck in a traffic jam and so, via a bit of egregious Youku product placement, he watches the movie on his phone. But the film he watches is partly a film he’s imagining and partly a film Tsui Hark is subverting.
Jimmy’s version of Tiger Mountain presents a well-scrubbed vision of Chinese history in which bold PLA heroes are framed like they just stepped out of a propaganda film. Like most people his age, Jimmy’s history is 90 percent Party doctrine and 10 percent Hollywood spectacle, and it follows the formula for revolutionary fiction to “make the good better, the bad worse” resulting in heroic PLA soldiers and subhuman bandits. Because Jimmy’s version takes up most of the running time, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking that Tiger Mountain is straightforward, but it’s actually a young person’s reimagining of a 1970 movie, based on a Cultural Revolution-era opera, based on a novel, based on real events—while peeking out through the cracks is Tsui’s version, deconstructing Jimmy’s Central Committee–approved Hollywood take.
Tsui’s version is well aware of the story’s origins as a stage play. Characters are constantly dressing up in costumes and masks, pretending to be other people, staging fake attacks, staging fake conversations to mislead eavesdroppers, denouncing innocent men with fake charges, and indulging in life-and-death make believe. The bad guys seem to have found an arsenal of MAC cosmetics right next to their arsenal of weapons, and they wear eyeliner and lipstick, fake scars, eye patches, mismatched costumes and bad wigs, right out of a primary-school history pageant.
In the book and the opera, Hawk’s men are a mix of bandits, Nationalist soldiers, and landlords—class enemies all—and it is solely concerned with class warfare, as the heroic PLA intervene to protect the oppressed proles of Leather Creek from Hawk’s predatory capitalists. The novel’s romance between PLA commander Shao and Nurse Bai was scrubbed from the opera as being “too individualistic,” as was a revenge subplot, and neither are present in Jimmy’s version of the story. In fact, Jimmy’s goes one step further: in the book and opera, the Advance Map shows the location of a huge stash of opium left behind by the Japanese, not the weapons and gold it shows in the movie.
But Tsui keeps tweaking the script. In an off-kilter note, everyone dislikes Yang at first sight, trembling when he’s introduced, and even instinctively trying to murder him for no reason. Instead of being a four-square hero, there’s something uncomfortable and oddly disruptive about his presence. Tsui’s villagers also don’t stand up to Hawk’s gang once the PLA arrives as they do in the opera. In fact, they beg to be left alone, preferring subjugation to being murdered when the PLA moves on and new bandits arrive in the area. Yang isn’t even a Communist in Tsui’s version, choosing to leave the army and the party to infiltrate the mountain fortress after being ordered not to do so by Shao.
Tsui’s version looks further back than 1970, or even 1958, for many of his choices, reaching all the way back to the roots of Chinese opera. Hawk is a chou, one of Chinese opera’s comic types, a masked, hunched, subhuman clown, earthy and ridiculous. Yang is a jing character, a forceful male warrior, sporting a fake beard and slathered in eye shadow and make-up. The film itself is staged like an opera, with numerous scenes of one character standing in the foreground speaking while the rest of the cast cluster behind them like the chorus. And the scene when Yang first meets Lord Hawk—one of the most famous arias in Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy—is here rendered almost as if it’s on stage with the two actors declaiming lines from the opera across a vast hall at each other.
The changes from one version to another are subtle and multilayered, and they matter. In Snowy Forest, the original book, Yang rides up the mountain singing pornographic songs to get himself into character as a bandit. In the model opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, he rides up singing patriotic songs. In Tsui’s Taking Tiger Mountain he doesn’t sing at all, instead we get right to his fight with a CGI tiger. The tiger fight is in all three versions, and it’s based on a famous sequence in the 16th century Chinese classic, The Water Margin, in which the hero, Wu Song, gets drunk and fights a tiger. Tsui wants to keep reminding us that the roots of this story are not Communist China, but Imperial China.
At the end of the movie, Yang leads an assault on the mountain fortress during Hawk’s Hundred Chicken Feast he’s holding for his birthday, and most of the bandits surrender. Hawk escapes and sets a trap, but Yang outwits him and shoots him in the back. Then Yang and Shao smile and clasp hands as the sun rises in the East and they talk about how they are needed for one more mission. In the wrap-around, Jimmy goes home and we learn that his grandmother and grandfather were both characters in the film. His grandmother has prepared a New Year’s dinner that’s attended by the ghosts of the dead soldiers, and then Jimmy imagines a different, more heroic, more 3-D friendly ending for the movie in which no one is shot in the back, and instead Yang and Hawk are shown battling each other on a crashing biplane. Presented as the credits roll, Jimmy’s version is far more traditionally heroic, and far more traditionally Hollywood, with Yang trying to save Hawk, who betrays him, then falls to his death. Flush with the egotism of China’s little emperors, Jimmy can’t help but imagine that Chinese history is all about him—nothing more than a comfortable fairy tale that reinforces his own prejudices and places him at the center of the universe.
But Tsui still gets the last word. There’s something chilling in the final shot of the 1946-set sequence between Yang and Shao because Communist ideology only functions in a world of “continuous revolution.” You can only have one party if there is always a new enemy to fight, if there is always one more battle to win, if there is always one more mission to accept. It’s when the missions are over that everyone settles down, and sends their children to American colleges so they can work for international companies and get rich, and that’s when the problems start. The Communist Party’s version of Chinese identity, Tsui seems to be saying, is only formed in opposition to an outside enemy, be they national enemies (the Japanese) or class enemies (Hawk’s bandits). Without an enemy to fight, who are these characters?
Like his characters, Tsui’s Taking Tiger Mountain is all playacting: the story of a director pretending to make a nationalist blockbuster which is based on the white-washed official history sold to the young people of China, but is actually a Trojan Horse critiquing their understanding of history. And in an ironic twist worthy of an opera, the very same young people who are being criticized are the ones who have bought the tickets that made this film a hit.
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… Welcome to 2015! Now let’s talk about death. Veteran voice actor, Lam Po-chuen, was the Chinese voice of animated Japanese character Doraemon for over 30 years before he passed away on January 1. He was a much-loved fixture on the Hong Kong film scene, having also dubbed Sammo Hung and Alexander Fu Sheng’s voices in the past. It’s a nice reminder that most of the voices you hear in Hong Kong movies don’t belong to the actors you’re seeing on screen. On December 17, veteran cinematographer Chan Kwok-hung drowned in a boat accident while shooting the Renny Harlin–Jackie Chan film Skiptrace. He was a longtime DP and shot movies like Fong Sai Yuk (93), The God of Cookery (96), the three Overheard films, and many more. Also, the last film directed by Thailand’s master action director, Panna Rittikrai, has finally been released. Vengeance of an Assassin was shelved by distributor, Sahamongkol, for about a year, but by all accounts it’s a perfectly lovely B-list action movie. You can watch the trailer and judge for yourself.
… Also dead in 2014 was Japan’s legendary cinematographer Fujio Morita, who shot everything from the Zatoichi series to the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Midnight Eye has a focus on his career which is a nice primer on the development of Japanese camerawork.
… PK, a Bollywood spectacular is stirring up all kinds of lucrative controversy. Superstar Aamir Khan plays an alien who comes to earth and gets caught up in a religious controversy. It’s been protested by fundamentalist Hindu groups, who have vandalized theaters showing the film. No matter: the movie has become the top-grossing Bollywood film of all time, even beating Khan’s previous hit, Dhoom 3.
… Japanese right-wingers have their panties in a twist over Angelina Jolie’s war movie, Unbroken, claiming, predictably, that the World War II drama is “pure fabrication.” Also, that it’s racist.
The Light Shines Only There
… The Japan Times film critics get together and talk about the best Japanese films of 2014.
… Ode to My Father has become the first Korean movie of 2015 to reach the 10 million admission mark, coming in at number-one three weeks in a row so far, and showing no signs of slowing. The controversial movie, about the generation growing up after the Korean War and the sacrifices they made for their children, is an old-school melodrama with big star power (Kim Yun-Jin of Lost fame and Hwang Jung-Min of The Unjust, both of whom appeared together in the 1999 blockbuster Shiri), but when the current conservative government praised it for its patriotism, and patronizingly lectured Koreans that they could learn a thing or two from the movie, it was labeled a right-wing, backward-looking movie.
… On January 9, Korean blockbuster The Con Artists will hit U.S. and Chinese screens after opening strong in Korea earlier this year. Starring Kim Woo-Bin and Lee Hyun-Woo, both of them young, good-looking TV drama stars, it’s about a heist that has to be completed in 40 minutes. The trailer promises more slick Korean blockbuster action of the kind that’s becoming more and more common these days.
… Anyone sick of hype surrounding The Interview and wanting a look at the far more fascinating real-life North Korean film industry should keep their eyes peeled for A Kim Jong-Il Production, Paul Fischer’s book about the North Korean film industry. It’s set to come out in February of this year, and it’s a densely researched look at one of the most fascinating film industries on earth.
… Indonesia’s film industry is getting stronger after local movies took a tumble between 2010 and 2013. In 2014, several local films raked in big grosses, including The Golden Cane Warrior, a retro throwback to classic kung fu flicks (with choreography by longtime Tsui Hark collaborator Xiong Xin-xin). There was also Supernova, a CGI-stuffed film adaptation of an “unfilmable” novel which is a metafictional sci-fi romance. But the big hit of the year was the heist-gone-wrong comedy, Comic 8. The Jakarta Post has a good roundup of both the highest-grossing and the undiscovered treasures of Indonesia’s 2014 films.