Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain is ostensibly a retelling of an actual conflict during the twentieth century Chinese Civil War where a band of 30 Communist soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) successfully infiltrated and defeated a notorious bandit gang that had seized an abandoned Japanese armory left over from World War Two. Though based on a novel itself based on a Peking opera, the film takes pains to reassure the audience of the story’s authenticity, most notably in an ending credits sequence where pictures of the real-life soldiers are flashed onscreen. The film is even bookended with a framing story where an immigrant Chinese programmer living in New York City returns to his family’s village for Christmas, revealing that he’s the descendant of these very characters. But any claims towards this film being a true story should be met with the same skepticism afforded the “Based on a True Story” title card in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996). The film is a breathlessly kinetic, patently absurd, overbearingly joyful action extravaganza with no possible basis in reality. And that’s why it’s the most enjoyable action film since George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
The film opens with Unit 203—a group of poorly armed, starving, yet unflinchingly patriotic and steadfast PLA soldiers—being ordered to retake the eponymous Tiger Mountain. Led by Shao Jianbo (Lin Gengxin), or “Captain 203,” they stumble across a sinister plot involving the bandits’ imperious, ruthless leader named Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-fai) who’s searching for three maps leading the way to hidden Japanese stashes of arms, ammo, and gold scattered throughout the mountains. If Hawk gets all three maps, the stashes would give him the power to permanently crush the PLA and become the ruler of Northeast China. Sensing a potential ally, agents of the Kuomintang—the Communists’ enemies—offer a tentative alliance with Hawk, giving him additional equipment and manpower. So Hawk and his bandits are more than just an immediate threat to the area’s innocent villagers, they’re a dangerous existential threat to the future of China itself. (Despite marketing claims that Hark removed all the ideology from the story and focused on making a great action film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is the most unapologetically political blockbuster in recent memory, lionizing Chinese Communists and villainizing Chinese Nationalists, aka modern Taiwanese people.)
While Captain 203 barricades a nearby village and regroups his forces, he dispatches Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu), a sly undercover agent, to infiltrate Hawk’s stronghold to gather intel. If the scenes involving Captain 203 and his 30 PLA soldiers are reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) with its small band of outnumbered, outgunned heroes defending an innocent village from cutthroat bandits, the scenes with Zirong in Hawk’s fortress are straight out of an undercover agent film like Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997) or Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). By constantly having to prove his loyalty to the suspicious, increasingly paranoid Hawk, not a second goes by where Zirong isn’t milliseconds away from being found out and ruining the whole mission. Things are further complicated when he discovers Ma Qinglian (Yu Nan), the kidnapped mother of one of the village’s children who’s become Hawk’s unwilling concubine.
Many Hong Kong action movies, especially their big-budget blockbusters, have a tendency to lose focus and momentum by getting bogged down with too many side-plots, too much unnecessary comedic relief, and too many uncalled for plot twists. But in the midst of this film’s dizzying narratives, Hark’s storytelling remains lucid and razor-sharp, calmly propelling both the characters and the audience towards the next action set-piece. And what set-pieces! Makeshift gasoline drum cannons mow down rivers of snow-skiing, shot-gun wielding bandits! Zirong fights off a starving tiger in the middle of the woods with nothing but a pistol and exceptional tree-climbing skills! A stolen Japanese tank blasts a mountaintop, raining down an avalanche of boulders on unsuspecting bandits! PLA soldiers zip-line across canyons during blizzards, deflect midair enemy grenades with other grenades, and fight one-on-one duels with bandits on top of exploding airplanes wedged between two opposing cliff faces. Yet for all this insanity, the action never feels cluttered or too busy, thanks in large part to Hark’s anxiety towards the 3D technology used to shoot the film. Fearing his traditional filmmaking style that utilized rapid-fire editing wouldn’t work in 3D, the action scenes here are more focused on intricate widescreen shot composition than disorienting montage. There are still many obligatory slow-motion shots where bullets and cannon shells fly right towards the screen before smashing into a bandit’s juicy cranium, but most of the action is more measured and deliberately choreographed than the majority of what passes for action cinema these days.
For a nearly two-and-a-half hour film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is remarkably uncluttered. And this is something too many blockbusters, both Chinese and Western, take for granted: action scenes don’t have the same weight and impact if audiences don’t understand what’s going on, both onscreen and in the story. It doesn’t matter if said story is preposterous patriotic grandstanding—the film is a work of proud cultural myth-making. See it. And when you do, make sure it’s in 3D.