Review: THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN (2014)


SYNOPSIS:
Tsui Hark’s thrilling adaptation of Qu Bo’s beloved adventure novel stars Tony LEUNG Ka-fai as a ruthless bandit, ruling the lands of Northeast China from his fortress on Tiger Mountain. A captain of the Liberation Army (LIN Gengxin) launches a counter-insurgency against the dictator with a skilled investigator (ZHANG Hanyu) sent to destroy the gang from the inside.
REVIEW:

It's been a while since I've seen a Tsui Hark film, and to be honest, I haven't had the luxury of seeing all of them. However, I will speak on the handful of films I have seen with his name attached, and his is a vision I am entirely charmed by when it comes to truly epic, adventurous storytelling. This time, he introduces us to at least one other aspect of history that not many of us are not exposed to, and here thanks in large part to late author Qu Bo whose classic pseudo-biographical novel, "Tracks In The Snowy Forest", has finally found its way in Hark's crafty mind for the new period action epic, The Taking Of Tiger Mountain.

The film sets itself up as one big flashback, kicking things off in modern day New York City where we meet Jimmy, played by Han Geng. After a brief party visit, Jimmy sets out on a trip whereupon we, the audience are transported to post-World War 2 period in 1946 during the Chinese Civil War where Commander 203 (Kenny Lin) leads his unit of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) against the Kuomintang and hordes of bandits and looters in the region. Braving the bitter cold and running out of means for survival, an opportune gunfight against a gang of bandits from nearby Tiger Mountain brings them temporary shelter, until the arrival of communist recon officer Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu) and military field nurse Bai (Tong Liya), who happen to bring their services as well as a food supply for the soliders. Yang and Bai are welcome into the squad while for 203, Yang's unconventional behavior is slightly suspect along with his seeming intentions.

Soon enough, a traumatized young boy, Knotti, is found in the night, discovered wandering from a nearby village and is taken in the care of the PLA who take refuge in the village, only to learn it has been ramsacked and looted repeatedly by Tiger Mountan bandits, leaving its villagers to suffer while aware that bandit spies are among them. The PLA troops take refuge in one of the huts prior to incidentally capturing one of the spies moments later, and it is not long before their mole, Luan (Mark Du) a corrupt KMT Comissioner's aide who goes rogue, divulges a bigger plot at hand involving the acquisition TONS of gold, guns and strength in numbers. The only way to attain these is the Advance Map, a three-piece map that will guarantee its owner great power over the northeast, and Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fei), the sadistic ruler of Tiger Mountain whose paranoia is the only thing that supercedes his authority over all the bandits, as well as his closest lieutenants, wants that map.

Knowing this, Commander 203 and his men know they have to stop Lord Hawk, lest he become even more stronger and powerful than he is now, but the usual tactics aren't going to work. This is where the grist of Qu Bo's original story gets going, where Yang, against 203's wishes, makes a harrowing attempt to infiltrate the gang as an underling of Hawk's rival, Big Stick. Moments later, Yang's plan proves successful only when he appeases Lord Hawk under duress with a gift as his only key to his good graces. Soon, he is intiated through a bond of brotherhood and is welcome into the gang, though still tested under Hawk's watchful eye. However, as if being trapped behind enemy lines and evading being discovered weren't enough, Yang must also mitigate the rescue of Knotti's mother and Lord Hawk's captive mistress Qinglian (Yu Nan) who is desperate to escape, but time is running out. Hawk advances his forces into the village where he is convinced the PLA are, and a major battle ensues. Lives are lost and loyalties are questioned as the balance of power makes one more shift, bracing our heroes for one final all-or-nothing attack on Hawk's fortress with only one chance left for Yang to bring down an ruthless warlord, rescue Qinglian and reunite a mother with her son once and for all.



The Taking Of Tiger Mountain is chock-full of characters and thankfully Hark knows what he's doing so as to avoid from being convoluted in establishing many of the relationships and connections throughout. The film is well acted, the action was good, and it didn't get so silly to the point where I wanted to turn the film off or fast forward. The costumes were great in adding to some of the performances, specifically to many of the villains in the film, each with their own personalities, and a few of whom stand out pretty notably from time to time in the film's spectacular battle sequences and stunts. Moreover, action director Yuen Bun (Beyond Hypothermia, Knock Off, Kung Fu Jungle) did a terrific job coordinating the film's explosive sequences that give plenty of room for several of the actors to shine.

There was humor and just a smidget of romance where it counted, and several of the key performances in the film worked, including that of Zhang and Lin, and an almost unrecognizable Leung in the role of the villain. Other good performances, included, but aren't limited to, actors Xian Chow, Mark Du and Yang Yiwei, as well as female leads Tong and Yu; Shi Yanneng, who debuted his first lead role last year in Wrath Of Vajra, plays one of Hawk's generals in the film. While largely known for martial arts roles, he doesn't showcase anything significant in that department given the rest of film's overall tone, but he still turns out a good performace and that's really all we need.

There are only a few things that did bother me that occurred at the top of the film regarding how it sets up the rest of the narrative. There is some campy acting here and there, the film also suffers from its fair share of lackluster CGI. Other than that, the remainder of the film does fine by Hark's standards, and serves to be more than just a full scale action drama, outlining itself almost perfectly as a fitting tribute to history's heroes and the legacy they leave behind. It's a hearfelt story of family, comradery, trust and love in a time of war, poverty and unrelenting strife and futilism, and it all works out virtually well in the end, along with some nice little surprises.

Personally, I don't mind a film being based on a novel or a comic book or the like, particularly if it is done right by a director that respects the source material.  That said, I never read Qu Bo's novel or have even seen Xie Tieli's subsequent 1970 Opera-based revolutionary feature, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Nevertheless, with The Taking Of Tiger Mountain, Hark continues to exemplify his ability to highlight history while dazzling a new generation of moviegoers with a strong protagonists and illustrious characters that carry great depth for truly epic stories on a massive level that are worth the price of a ticket.

The film is out in China as of this week while Well Go USA plots the film's limited theatrical releases in North America and Canada between January 2 and January 9, 2015. Visit the official website for locations and dates!

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