Legend of Zu (2001) Movie Review

I will first admit to not having followed the career of Tsui Hark, the writer/director of “Legend of Zu”, besides what I have seen of his work in such American fare as “Knock Off” and “Double Team”. Both American films having the unenviable distinction of starring the wooden and muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Both movies were, in short, failures when it came to entertainment. They did not, well, entertain me very much. Or the world, for that matter, since they both tanked at the box office.

My interest in Tsui Hark’s career was renewed after witnessing the wildly staged bravados of his action movie “Time and Tide”, an admittedly confusing narrative film saved only by its spectacular no-holds-barred stunts and action sequences. I once believed that, like many Asian directors who had the misfortune of coming into contact with a certain egomaniac name Van Damme (a man short on talent and size but big on everything else), Tsui Hark’s career was looking very grim. I am then relieved to see that Hark’s career has not been ended, but has instead brought him back to his native Hong Kong, where he can continue to grow as a director and make even more engaging films. Of course I didn’t expect “Legend of Zu”, which doesn’t really show that Hark has grown as a filmmaker.

“Zu” is actually a sequel of sorts to an earlier Hark movie, “Warriors of Zu Mountain”, which was made way back in 1983. Although calling “Zu” a sequel to the 1983 version isn’t entirely correct, because the 2001 rebirth is more of a remake. With “Legend of Zu” Hark is attempting to essentially erase all memories of the poor special effects and the sight of too many characters leaping back and forth with the aid of obvious wire stunts. Unless you like that sort of stuff, in which case you would have overdosed on both bad special effects and obvious wireworks because the original had plenty of both, and wasn’t shy about using them over and over and over…

The closest things I can compare “Legend of Zu” to are comic book superheroes. These heroes just happen to be Chinese. The plot? An evil being called Insomnia has come to the mythical Zu mountains to destroy the magical clans that resides in/on/over/whatever those said mountains. The truth is, I’m really not sure what or where this place is, or even what Insomnia’s beef is with these superpowered people. Suffice it to say, like all Supreme Evil Entity of thousands of comic books and countless superhero movies, Insomnia just seems to want to destroy things and people, and it’s up to the good guys to stop him/it/she/whatever. And thus, we have the basis for “Legend of Zu”, such as it is.

The heroes come in the form of Sky King, Red, Enigma, and Hollow, each one with their own unique superpowers. They can all fly, of course, and each one has nifty signature weapons. Along the way, a mortal soldier played by Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) in a supporting role shows up, does very little, and does very little some more. The character could have been excised completely and not change the movie’s structure in any way. As it is, the film is already lacking in narrative coherence, and Ziyi’s character doesn’t do it any favors.

The entire movie consists of spectacular CGI-generated action scenes involving magic powers, flying, and exploding mountains. There is nothing about these scenes that convinces me the actors actually know martial arts. In fact, the only scene of actual hand-to-hand martial arts is a brief encounter between Zhang Ziyi’s character and Hollow, who after dying, is reborn as Ying.

(Yes, I know, it’s all very confusing. It’s Hong Kong, after all.)

“Legend of Zu” is not really about story or plot. It’s about Tsui Hark showing the Western world that he can seamlessly blend cutting edge technology with Eastern filmmaking. The movie wows in that area, despite the fact that the love story between Sky King and Enigma is a little underwhelming. Still, you can’t deny the fact that actress Cecilia Cheung, in any incarnation, is easy on the eyes.

Thank God for small miracles, I always say.

Hark Tsui (director) / Hark Tsui (screenplay)
CAST: Ekin Cheng, Louis Koo, Cecilia Cheung

Buy Legend of Zu on DVD