Action movies in recent years, usually American action films, have come under huge scrutiny. After the introduction of CGI, directors have decided to mask any real action happening on screen and instead cheat us with a watered version of “action”. Many critics have considered Hong Kong the only country to truly sustain gritty, realistic action. Tsui Hark is one of those directors that have been praised for utilizing practical effects rather than CGI to create amazing action sequences. Tsui Hark has started to experiment with 3D with films like Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon but has managed to keep the same Hong Kong action style. In Hark’s newest film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, he decides to adapt the famous Yangbanxi The Taking of Tiger Mountain by Strategy from the Cultural Revolution era. The Yangbanxi was based off of the massively popular 1957 novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest. Instead of telling the story in its gritty and strategic war fashion, Hark decides to remove the By Strategy from the title and create a mindless action film.
The film surprisingly starts in New York in the year 2014. Jimmy has fun with friends at karaoke before he has to go back to his hometown in North Eastern China for the New Year. They play for him the original Yangbanxi and that is where the film travels back to Civil War era China. Troop 203, a troop of PLA soldiers placed in the mountains of North Eastern China are low on supplies. They decide to send Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu) to infiltrate a group of bandits led by Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-fai) to liberate a near by village.
The plot sounds a lot like a simple Hong Kong spy thriller, because it basically is. Except instead of spies, we have PLA soldiers. The Taking of Tiger Mountain boasts some beautiful cinematography, highlighting the epic snowy mountains of North Eastern China. Most importantly, the film brings back a lot of nostalgia for Mainland Chinese audiences. Any native mainlander born before the 1980s has probably got every single major line of the original Yangbanxi burned into the back of their head. Chinese audiences were dazzled to see their hero, Yang Zirong, defeating the baddies once again in 3D modern action glory. This film is sure to bring back great memories for these people and I can’t complain about that.
Outside of those aspects, I think The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a pretty terrible film. Impressive cinematography and personal nostalgia are not enough to save a film that is clearly a rip off of every bad aspect of both American and Hong Kong action films.
The largest problem I have with the film is the action sequences. As I mentioned in my introduction, Tsui Hark has always created impressive action sequences that have a sense of realism and grittiness. I haven’t seen any of Tsui Hark’s other films but from clips I can see that he is fully capable of filming excellent action. Sadly, he has succumbed to the American way of filming action by using a disgusting amount of CGI and awful editing. The action in the film doesn’t have a grounded feeling. People are just flying around hitting each other like its nothing. None of the action brings any real tension and we don’t feel worried at all for our heroes. Hark specifically cut in the middle of the action to give a false sense of “intensity” when he is just really cheating the audience. The use of bullet time in the film feels gratuitous. The film even shows a grenade blow up in slow motion, forming back into one piece and blowing up again. The CGI blood looks like pieces of jelly and the explosions look like a kid had too much fun with Microsoft Paint. I do have to praise Hark for not going too far with the violence. By the end, the battle sequences look like a huge mess and the action came off more as burdening rather than entertaining. There is even a second ending with an even more over the top action sequence. It was absolutely nauseating and I could sense Hark just having fun for the hell of it. The sequence did not offer anything purposeful to the film and just dragged the film even longer.
The 3D in the film is just pointless. With already awful action sequences, the 3D just adds another ton of pain onto the human eye. The 3D offered no depth of field, was not used in any innovative or meaningful way and it just is a gimmick to get little kids into the seats.
In between the action sequences, there are cringe-worthy scenes of “character development” and silly humor. An entertaining film is no excuse for a bad script or a bad story. An action film needs a working story to keep us compelled in the situation so that the action feels meaningful and even more enjoyable. The characters in the film are as thin as the pieces of paper they were written on. None of them had any personality and are more defined by their appearance, especially the bad guys. The bad guys in the film became so over-the-top that they began to feel like rejected pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean. The worst character of the entire film is the female nurse. Why did she have to be in this film? She was more like passive eye candy rather than a real character. Her character could have been utilized as a commentary for how there is a lack of women in the military but the film is having too much fun to get to any of that serious stuff. The jokes in the film are extremely cheesy and repeated so many times that they come off repetitive. Zhang Hanyu does do a good job at capturing the heroic aspect of Yang Zirong and probably delivers the best performance of the entire film. The rest of the PLA soldiers also had good performances as they were controlled and felt more like real people compared to the villains.
There are multiple subplots within the film including one with a child whose mother was taken away by the bandits. Honestly, the child actor did a better job than 90% of the cast in terms of acting. The multiple subplots of the film just made the film even longer and less focused. The entire thing just began to collapse onto itself into a pile of underdeveloped and meaningless subplots. If you had cut out all of these subplots, the film would have been drastically shorter but it would be better paced and more focused on the main story.
The choice of narrative structure in the film is also highly questionable. The decision to include scenes from the present day and linking it to the Civil War era is a nice idea but requires masterful execution. Does the film do a good job at accomplishing this tough narrative structure? Not at all. I think this is mostly because the tone is off. The modern scenes and the Civil War era scene feel like two completely different movies. The modern scenes feel light hearted and realistic while the Civil War era scenes feel over the top. At the end of the film, they did use this narrative structure to portray something quite heartwarming but its overall execution obscures the film’s attempt to make the Civil War era still relevant to contemporary times.
Despite offering some very beautiful cinematography and providing older Chinese audiences a nostalgic experience, The Taking of Tiger Mountain’s detractors far overshadow its meager accomplishments. Tsui Hark completely got lost in touch of what made his previous action films so impressive. He is now beginning to feel like the Chinese Michael Bay. Hark also did a horrible job at trying to make the film’s scope “epic” by encompassing scenes from modern day and by including a million subplots that really no cares about. If he had just focused on the soldier’s attempts to take down the bandits and added more tension to the war setting, then the film would have been much better. I understand that the film is beloved by most and not by me, but this is just my opinion. I give The Taking of Tiger Mountain a D+.
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