The Legend of Zu
(Shu shan zheng zhuan) (2001)
Directed by Tsui Hark

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Insomnia, a powerful demon terrorizing the denizens of the legendary Zu Mountains and threatening the world, is opposed by King Sky (Ekin Cheng), whose master, Dawn (Cecilia Cheung), that fiend had killed two hundred years before, and by the warriors of Omei, who are led by the wise Whitebrows (Sammo Hung). This man, upon hearing of the emergence of Insomnia, sends one of his pupils, Red (Louis Koo), to warn a human army marching nearby to flee, although he arrives too late and must himself fight the demon. Soon thereafter, King Sky, who has joined with Red, encounters a young woman from Omei, Enigma (Cecilia Cheung), who is Dawn's reincarnation, and begins to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Joy (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the general who had led the mortal army Red had attempted to warn, arrives at Omei and asks one of its warriors, Thunder (Patrick Tam), to train her.

Tsui Hark's The Legend of Zu is such an amazingly frenetic, visually intoxicating film that it is wonderfully fun to watch, in spite of its forgettable characters and formless narrative.

The special effects with which the movie is absolutely filled are some of the most colorful, imaginatively realized, and genuinely captivating that I have encountered in any film. In addition to being charming on their own, these effects are effectively used by the director to give the imaginary world he has conjured up a real mythic quality and to infuse his characters with a palpable magic.

There is, fact, hardly a person who appears in the film who will not, thanks to his supernatural powers or otherworldly nature, draw the viewer out of his ordinary life so that he is able to immerse himself in the director's fabulous universe. King Sky thus wields an ornate metallic crescent that had belonged to his teacher and that cuts and dances through the air with a life of its own. Red sprouts metallic bird's wings whose blade-like feathers he is able to use as weapons. Hollow (Jacky Wu), a warrior who has lost his memory, has also lost his face, which is always strangely blurred, and Whitebrows has incredibly long eyebrows with which he ensnares his enemies. Happily, the villains these persons encounter are nearly as captivating as they are. Amnesia (Kelly Lin), a tiny fairy-like witch who flutters about on butterfly wings, is able to enter into and possess Red, after which a serpentine tentacle ending in her face grows from that man's brow. Insomnia is always wrapped in a skull-shaped cloud that is itself formed of countless skulls, and a band of his warriors, who, apparently, are made wholly of metal, are able to dissolve into swarms of tiny flying monstrosities and then recombine these into armored figures wielding what appear to be metal spinal columns which they use as whips.

What is more, the impossibly tall, thin Zu Mountains, which are crowned with magnificent palaces and flanked by inverted peaks hanging weightlessly in the air, are as fantastic as are the persons who live among them and greatly contribute to the film's liminal feel. There is hardly a place in this peculiar land that will not catch the viewer's fancy, whether it is the fanged, biting entrance of the Blood Cave, its red, pulsating interior filled with colossal heads, the vast pillared halls through which the heroes wander, the wide, elegantly decorated courts in which they gather, or some other marvellous locale besides these.

Fortunately, the movie is not merely a presentation of amazing places and characters, but is also absolutely packed with incredible actions. At various points, characters perform fantastic feats of arms or soar through brilliantly blue skies past glowing pink or golden clouds while skeins of light trail behind them. They battle one another with diverse magical weapons, including Red's metallic wings, King Sky's spinning crescent, the enormous clouds of seething blood Insomnia sends after his enemies, and swords that are able to multiply themselves or lift their wielder into the air. Not only are each of the fight sequences in which these devices are employed truly fun to watch, but they constitute the bulk of the movie, so that the viewer's excitement will hardly have diminished in the interval between the end of one such routine and the beginning of the next.

This is not to say that The Legend of Zu is without faults, however. The story is so amorphous that the movie is more of a collection of incredible incidents than it is a satisfying whole. The characters, though visually captivating, are vaguely delineated and largely unengaging. Moreover, when their emotions are brought out, they are usually presented in such a melodramatic way that, instead of involving the viewer with these persons, such moments are more likely to make him laugh.

Despite such shortcomings, The Legend of Zu is, thanks to its exciting action sequences and its visual appeal, genuinely memorable. It is certainly worth watching.

Review by Keith Allen

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