A blockbuster retelling of the popular Mao-era novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest, Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain snappily refracts Cultural Revolution spectacle through the prism of Hong Kong action cinema’s visual kineticism. Celebrating the victory of an outnumbered PLA army over a ruthless gang of bandits, the heroic novel has been spun into stylish treatments before: a successful Beijing opera and a subsequent film version. This latest iteration trades the opera entirely for action and throws in a present-day side plot. Under the leadership of lionhearted 203 (Lin Gengxin), a few brave PLA troops go up against big-boss Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-fai), a slew of bad-guy brethren (fellows with names like Bro 2, Bro 3, Bro 4, and Bro 5), and countless other brigands with plans to rule northern China from their mountainside citadel. The only hope is for Yang (Zhang Hanyu), a duplicitous but good secret agent to infiltrate the gang.
A figurehead of Hong Kong’s golden age of film, Hark is in his comfort zone here, splashing up the past with vim, verve, and sentimentality. Though he remains mostly focused on the story’s evil marauders and selfless soldiers, the director intermittently weaves in present-day scenes of Jimmy (Han Geng), a very nice, very bland young man with some connection to this famous story, who stops by a friend’s New Year’s party in New York’s Chinatown before moving away. A scene from the Tracks in the Snowy Forest opera interrupts his farewells, inexplicably playing as a song on a karaoke machine. Pointing out the video, Jimmy’s friend remarks, “That’s your hometown.” In response, Jimmy heads to China and the film into the heroic past, the two eventually and inevitably converging in a humble Chinese home on the Lunar New Year, with Jimmy and his grandmother sharing dinner with a few surprise guests. The point, of course, is to gesture that the past is still important and alive. But cheery and happily empty-headed, the subplot adds little but sentiment to a film shot through with cliché characters, a predictable plot, and undisguised reverence.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain is lean and explosive enough that it’s easy to ignore its many shortcomings. Through an arsenal of creative tics, Hark hops up the bandits’ stylized appearances, which are abundant in eye patches, beards, face tattoos, eyeliner, and dramatic, shifty stares. Yo-yoing shots of exploding rockets and grenades perk up the conventional bullet-time parade. In a seamless shot, Hark shows an explosion, rewinds the action so the grenade is back in one piece, whirling toward its target, and then shows it blowing up all over again. To call it overkill would be a fair description. But with no gravity to the scenes and no full-bodied characters, there’s nothing at risk, no surprises, no huge thrills, and as such the film starts to move along with the dead vigor of a lead balloon. Dressing up the delusions of state myth with the conventional tropes of the modern action film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a pyrrhic union, one that works overtime to sentimentalize a fabled but still-recent past.