Look! It Moves! At The NYAFF: Tsui Hark's 'The Taking of Tiger Mountain'
Tsui Hark is one of the world's greatest action directors, and it's nice to see him getting a resurgence with a string of hits on the Chinese Mainland since 2010's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which put him back on the map, and then with Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon. It makes sense to include him in the festival's Hong Kong Panorama section. He is one of the directors who has defined Hong Kong movies since the 1980s.
A huge hit in China in late 2015, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a barnstorming action movie adaptation of a piece of Chinese communist propaganda classic (based on fact). The film follows the People's Liberation Army's campaign against bandits who took over an old Japanese stronghold after the end of the Second World War. In Tsui Hark's hands, the story becomes an Indiana Jones-style pulp cliffhanger full of espionage, double-dealings, femme fatales, swarthy bad guys and edge-of-the-seat action you've never seen before.
Just as he revived Wong Fei Hong in the 1990s with Once Upon A Time in China, Tsui Hark has now breathed new life into the Mainland Chinese military action movie by bringing Hong Kong genre tropes and pacing to China. It's not subtle, but there are minor shades of ambiguity here — the bad guys dress better and are more interesting than the good guys. Censorship rules may demand the bad guys pay at the end, but they have a lot more fun causing mayhem before they do, and by the end, there's even a deconstruction of the nature of stories tailored to be patriotic propaganda.
Like Johnnie To's Drug War, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is another instance of a Hong Kong filmmaker grappling with creating meaningful work within the Mainland Chinese system while retaining his own cultural sensibility and independence. The framing sequence featuring a young Chinese man in the 21st Century thinking back on China's past and reimagining a story like the Taking of Tiger Mountain into the Hollywood-style action blockbuster turns the whole movie into a sly on the privilege and self-preoccupation of young Chinese people who grew up in the pop-heavy, post-Communist era.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain will screen at the New York Asian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater on July 8th. Tickets should still be available here. It is already on DVD and Blu-ray, and streaming on Netflix.
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