Tiger By The Tail: The Taking of Tiger Mountain movie review
Legendary director Tsui Hark has been a fixture on the Hong Kong cinema scene since the 1970s (except for a little hiccup in the 90s when he made a couple crappy Hollywood movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, but let’s not talk about that now). His string of significant cinema work started in 1979 with The Butterfly Murders, moved through the 1990s with a slew of indispensible films including A Better Tomorrow (producer), A Chinese Ghost Story (producer), and the Once Upon A Time In China series (director), and continues to the present day with a clutch of period action films including Detective Dee 1 & 2 and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. His latest joint, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, just opened in the U.S. a week after its successful debut in China, where it’s the top film at the box office.
The film is based on a popular Beijing opera (from the novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest) that was one the Eight Model Plays sanctioned by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. The opera was adapted into a film in 1970 that Tsui Hark, along with most of China’s other 800 million people at the time, viewed as a youth. Tsui’s current adaptation is a co-production of the heavy-hitting commercial studio BONA Film Group and the August First Film Studio, which is the film-producing branch of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the influence of these disparate financing sources shows in the finished product. While it mostly passes as an energetic action/adventure movie, Tiger Mountain also has the smell of Chinese military propaganda, which inhibits some of director Tsui’s more maverick instincts.
The story is based on a true incident that took place in 1946 during China’s civil war, in which a small platoon of PLA fighters overcame a much larger bandit crew (alluded to as affiliated with the Kuomintang, the PLA’s opposition during the civil war) that’s holed up in a mountain stronghold. The film opens with a framing device in which Jimmy (Han Geng), a young modern-day Chinese student in the U.S., sees a snippet of the 1970 Taking Tiger Mountain film. As his buddies laugh at the old-fashioned opera stylings, Jimmy smiles fondly and later watches the film on his phone as he travels home to Harbin. The movie then cuts to the main action as the PLA platoon struggles to protect a village from the KMT bandits while confronting a lack of food and supplies as well as the onset of winter. As the situation worsens the platoon’s leader, known only as 203, decides to storm the bandit’s hideout on Tiger Mountain, sending in Yang (Zhang Hanyu), a PLA intelligence agent, to infiltrate the gang. The main body of the film follows Yang as he works from within the bandits’ lair while his compatriots endeavor to attack the stronghold from without. After a somewhat slow setup the narrative picks up speed around the forty-minute mark once Yang makes his way into the good graces of the bandit leader, Hawk. Following much intrigue and double-crossing the film concludes with a rip-roaring battle in the snowy mountain as the heroic PLA troops clash with the diabolical KMT bandits.
Tiger Mountain was released in China in 3-D (although its U.S. release is only in 2-D), and the film’s first brief battle sequence feels a bit too gamish, with slo-mo bullet-cam shots and computer-animated blood spurts probably better appreciated stereoscopically, The later, more extended action sequences, including an outstanding siege of a small village, are more engaging and rely less on CGI and more on real hand-to-hand combat and kinetic fight choreography. The climatic battle sequence and a brief coda involving a runaway plane are both pretty thrilling and demonstrate Tsui’s sure hand with action, characters, and special effects.
Tsui draws out solid performances throughout, although some of the film’s characters fall into standard war-movie types. Zhang Hanyu is dashing and resourceful as Yang, the fearless PLA spy sent to infiltrate the bandit camp, and he has several outstanding moments that convincingly demonstrate Yang’s ability to think on his feet. Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays a few years older in a bald-wig and hook nose as Hawk, the ruthless bandit leader, and it’s great to see him sink his teeth into the meaty character role. Lin Genxing is forthright, square-jawed, and handsome as the platoon’s captain but otherwise isn’t terribly compelling. Yu Nan doesn’t get to exercise her usual steely bravado since she’s mostly a captive throughout, though she does escape her bondage several times during the course of the film. Tong Liya as Little Dove, the doughty nurse, is predictably brave and lion-hearted. There’s also a cute little traumatized kid who gets to play a heroic role in the last battle as well as provide a manipulative emotional moment at the film’s climax.
As a Western viewer it’s a bit odd for me to root for the PLA since in my mind the Chinese army is forever linked with the 1989 brutality of Tiananmen Square, but PRC audiences undoubtedly have more positive associations with China’s military. Chinese viewers also probably feel a more visceral response to the strains of the familiar revolutionary opera on the soundtrack and find kinship with Jimmy and his nostalgic journey home to rediscover his family’s PLA roots.
In fact, Jimmy can be seen as a surrogate for Tsui himself, as at the outset of the film he recalls his nostalgic U.S. encounter with the original Taking Tiger Mountain film. Later, at the film’s conclusion, Jimmy is surrounded by a cadre of PLA soldiers and can only smile helplessly, submitting to the collective PLA memories, even as he tries to re-imagine a different version of the narrative’s conclusion. The PLA perspective, and by extension the August First version of the story, is too overwhelming to contradict.
Under different circumstances Tsui really could’ve cut loose but may have felt constrained by the sanctity of the material and/or by the military film office breathing down his neck. The film is much less irreverent and less of a pointed critique than some of his earlier productions that scathingly sent up organized religion (Green Snake), corrupt government officials (New Dragon Gate Inn), and colonial malfeasance (Once Upon A Time In China). Nonetheless, hints of Tsui’s signature style sneak in via the Road Warrior-esque bandit fashions including mohawks, facial tats, and various other quirky costuming choices that recall the art direction of Tsui’s earlier films including The Blade. Another glimpse of the film that might have been is an electrifying throwaway coda involving a speeding fighter jet, a long tunnel, and a very high precipice. Still, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is nowhere near as heinously patriotic as earlier glossy August First propaganda productions like The Founding of A Republic from a few years back. It’s to Tsui’s credit that he’s able to create a highly watchable and sometimes exhilarating film, however restricted he may have been by his material and his funding sources.