Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The New Zu Review
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Hong Kong, 1983)
The worldwide success of the Star Wars movies, followed by that of Conan the Barbarian, opened the funding floodgates for fantasy films, not just in Hollywood and Europe, but in Asia as well. Of course, Asian cinema had a tradition of making movies of fables and horror stories dating back to the silent era, but the new, hot trend out of Hollywood was combining such themes with heavy special effects support. Filmmakers in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Indonesia were eager to follow that trend, and though they had solid experience with practical effects and models, building the capacity to add sophisticated animation would take time and investment. But Asian filmmakers had no shortage of wild visual ideas to portray with the new special effects, as we’ll see from the early examples below.
Legend of the Eight Samurai
Origin: Japan, 1983
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Source: Mill Creek DVD
This is the kind of movie where you might ask yourself, “If the villains always had giant flying snakes they could send out to abduct the princess, why didn’t they do so earlier?” — or you can just roll with it. In this case, I advise the latter approach. Eight Samurai was a major success in Japanese theaters, and you’ll soon see why.
Eight Samurai is a sprawling chambara fantasy of warriors and wizardry based on Toshio Kamata’s novel Shin Satomi Hakkenden (1982) itself an updated version of Kyokutei Bakin’s classic Nanso Satomi Hakkenden (1842). It tells of a century-long feud between rival samurai clans, a struggle that seems to have come to an end as the film starts with the victory of the evil Hikita. The Satomi leaders’ heads are all sacrificed to the Hikitas’ patron Eternal Spirit — but the victory is incomplete, as Princess Shizu (Hiroko Yakushimaru) of the Satomi has somehow escaped! Furious, the undead Hikita lord, Motofuji (Yuki Meguro), and his equally undead magician mom, Tamazusa (Mari Natsuki), send their armor-clad warriors, shiny as scarabs, out to capture her.
On the run, Shizu encounters a vagabond would-be samurai, Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada), who decides to capture her upon hearing that there’s a reward, but the princess is saved by two warriors in white, Dozetsu (Sonny Chiba) and Daikaku (Minori Terada), who are devoted defenders of the Satomi who’ve been looking for her. They’re two of eight ancient loyal dog-spirits, now reborn as humans, each with a mystic crystal — but to defeat the Hikita, they’ll have to find the other six, some of whom are in unexpected situations.
Next comes two hours of pursuits, escapes, sword fights, abductions, and magical transformations, with the occasional expository interruption of legendary backstory. So much stuff happens it would be exhausting to detail it, but director Kinji Fukasaku is a master of action pacing who keeps everything moving, though not so fast that you can’t keep up. There’s plenty of swords and sorcery in this old-school fantasy, with magic spells, undead reanimations, flying snakes, and centipede demons portrayed mainly with practical effects. There’s also a fair amount of Hong Kong-style wire work, as the eight heroes and their enemies swoop around through haunted caves and the elaborate set of the Hikitas’ sinister mountaintop castle.
As the eight dog-warriors are gradually collected, there are inevitable echoes of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, especially when super-bossy Dozetsu initially rejects Shinbei from their number, but he follows them across the countryside anyway. Alas, there are so many characters here that none of them get a chance for any development except Shizu and Shinbei, who become lovers. But that doesn’t stop some of the players, particularly the villains, from some outrageous overacting, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Furthermore, some of the sudden plot reversals that keep the pot boiling are considerably less than credible.
However, it all comes to a satisfying conclusion as Shizu’s eight disparate magic samurai, now a team, storm the evil castle to attack the Eternal Spirit with the divine Bow of Light. Even the doomed romance works out somehow.
The Devil’s Sword
Origin: Indonesia, 1984
Director: Ratno Timoer
Source: Asia Line DVD
Trigger warning: softcore porn, gory horror effects, and a cheesy single-synth soundtrack. This is an Indonesian sword-and-sorcery exploitation flick, interesting mainly because where will you see another such film from this period with an English dub? It’s an experience.
A sinister meteorite crashes near the remote hut of an old hermit guru, who forges the glowing meteoric metal into a magic blade that grants (unspecified-but-great) power to its wielder. Four evil martial artists are gathered to go after the sword by the wicked Crocodile Queen (Gudi Sintara), who wears silver mylar bikinis and also collects hypnotized boy-toys for orgies in her big, fanged, crocodile-mouth bed.
When the Croc Queen sends the best of her four warriors, Banyunjaga (Advent Bangun), on a flying boulder to a village to break up a wedding and collect the groom for her, the villagers resist and he gleefully slaughters them, all but the bride, Pitaloka (Enny Christina), who turns out to be the most badass fighter in town. But she’s on the verge of defeat when a hero arrives on a golden palomino: it’s Mandala the mighty (Barry Prima)! He saves Pitaloka, though Banyunjaga grabs the groom and summons a half-dozen Croc Men out of the ground to cover his retreat. The groom is taken back to the Crocodile Cave, duly hypnotized, and then it’s mylar bikini sexytime!
But even mylar bikini sexytime must come to an end, and then everybody must go after the Devil’s Sword, which is hidden in a mystic cave that’s so nasty, it has red lighting all through it. Scary! Mandala retrieves the sword, and then he and Pitaloka have to fight Banyunjaga and the other three wicked martial artists, one of whom has a decapi-hat that pulls off your head if it lands on your cranium.
This movie has plenty of other ideas like that: it’s wildly inventive but the budget is rock-bottom, so the sorcery effects and monsters all suffer from a whiff of the ridiculous. Swordplay and kung fu fill about half the run-time, but the combat is marred by poor direction and cheap effects. Frankly, this movie isn’t very well made, but the real fun here is seeing standard heroic fantasy quest tropes through the lens of Indonesian culture. And there are so many varieties of Croc Men! Who knew?
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
Origin: Hong Kong, 1983
Director: Tsui Hark
Source: Universe Laser & Video DVD
This is a wild fantasy wuxia adventure from the genre-smashing director Tsui Hark, who made it with American special effects wizardry previously unknown to Honk Kong cinema, in the process establishing the Hong Kong SFX industry. The tale is nominally set in China in the 5th century, but its real setting is the realm of legends and what in the West would be called fairy tales.
The plot is almost impossible to summarize. Ti-Ming (Yuen Biao), a scout in the endless wars between feuding East Zu and West Zu and a sort of kung fu everyman, falls afoul of his bad-tempered commander and is forced to flee both armies. He stumbles into a haunted temple where he’s menaced by bat-demons until he’s saved by the mysterious swordsman Ting Yin (Adam Cheng), who introduces him to a mystical mountain realm where heroes of good oppose the disciples of evil.
While fighting the Blood Crows, they meet the good monk Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau) and his timid student, Yi Chen (Hoi Mang). Though the two heroes, the monk and the swordsman, are touchy and arrogant, their followers, the scout and the student, bond and become loyal friends. The pair encounters the elderly Long Brows, an avuncular martial artist who fights evil with his lambent Sky Mirror and his prehensile and adhesive eyebrows (!).
While their masters are off arguing and trading insults, the followers help Long Brow imprison the erupting Blood Demon, who threatens nothing less than world destruction. Long Brow informs the friends that they must get to Heaven’s Blade Peak and the Cave Beyond to collect the Twin Swords, for only they can defeat the Blood Demon, who will escape its bonds when the power of the Sky Mirror wanes.
And that’s just the set up — the full quest lies ahead, a mélange of magic, martial arts, and monsters in which the action comes so fast and furious that, to be frank, it’s often hard to tell what just happened. It sure looks cool, though, and the tone is mostly light and comedic, with plenty of slapstick gags to offset the imminent doom, an approach that John Carpenter cites as a primary influence on his film Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Out of the flurry of near-constant action, the movie’s themes gradually emerge. The heroes of good, such as the swordsman, the monk, and the countess of the Ice Fortress, are so full of themselves and caught up in proud bickering that they fall vulnerable to the disciples of evil, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of their humble apprentices. Together, the scout, the monk’s student, and a spunky young Ice Priestess must take up the cause their elders have fumbled and somehow find the courage and determination to defeat evil with just a few hints from wise sources like Long Brows.
That, plus a whole lot of vivid and hallucinogenic special effects. It’s a lot of fun, a nonstop avalanche of creative invention from Tsui Hark, all deployed with a fearless confidence reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. You can be just as confident that you’ll enjoy it.
Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.
Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:
Lone Wolf and Cub, Part 2
Arthur, King of the Britons
Premium Peplum: Top Hercs
Fight Direction by William Hobbs
Mash-Up or Shut Up
Classics on Screen — 1977
Wuxia in the Time of Kung Fu
So Many Prisoners of Zenda
Seventies Hall of Shame
The Year of Shogun
1981: The Old Order Changeth
The Barbarian Boom, Part 1
Old School Pirates
Euro Dumas Trio
The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle, with the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, available now from Pegasus Books in the US and UK. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.
Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.
I really enjoyed The Devil’s Sword. There’s just something hypnotic and endearing about a fantasy flick that is hell-bent on telling its loopy story despite being almost fatally challenged by lack of budget.
Even more enjoyable (on this level, mind you) is the even more absurd Tarkan vs the Vikings. It’s like a mutant hybrid of an R rated sword and sorcery epic and a grade school play.
Zu remains one of my favorite movies. My original VHS copy was an English-language edit that was practically a new film — they cut out about a third of the footage from the Hong Kong version and added a framing story set in the modern world where Yuen Biao goes to a fortune teller and learns that in a past life he was Ti-Ming (or something to that effect; details are fuzzy at this point) and at some point the action transitions to the (heavily edited) original movie. I was very happy when I eventually got the DVD with the original, unadulterated Hong Kong version.
It’s been remade at least twice — there was a 2001 version directed by Tsui Hark that is even harder to follow but has some amazing CGI imagery, which I do recommend. And there was a 2018 version that was kind of terrible and forgettable.
My absolute favorite, though, is the 1998 Hong Kong fantasy film The Storm Riders, starring Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng.
But what I want to know is how many other ossified fossils (besides me) get the atrocious joke in this piece’s title?
Yeah, another ossified fossil here and you should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Ellsworth!
I’m afraid I’m either not old enough or (more likely!) not hip enough. I don’t get the joke.
You’re fortunate, John. The New Zoo Revue was a bizarre kid’s show that has haunted my nightmares for half a century now. The theme song alone has driven me to the edge of madness more times than I can count. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaOm1i0x_cQ
You know that damned theme song is almost Lovecraftian in its ability to induce insanity, you even state this right out front AND THEN YOU GO AND POST THE LINK TO THE YOUTUBE CLIP FOR IT!!!
Mr. Parker, You Sir, are EVIL.
It’s worse than that, John – I HAVE THE ENTIRE SERIES ON DVD. Lovecraft is kindergarten finger-painting compared to such madness.
Dear Lord man, how do you stand it?
I recognized the reference when it was brought to my attention (a 1970s kids’ show called New Zoo Revue), but don’t know if I ever saw the show; and wasn’t completely sure of what it was until I googled the title.
Trust me, Mr. O’Neill, Hipness has nothing to do with it.
Here’s a clip from the (frankly terrible) framing story they added to Zu for the western release. I think this is actually from the end of the movie, once Yuen Biao is back in modern times.
Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Mylar Bikini Sexytime???
You know, I think I can just stop right there.
Mr. Ellsworth, I salute your ability to bring to us film treasures that might have otherwise been lost to us forever. Even to the point where it is the commenters who are bringing in their own recommendations (Tarkan vs the Vikings, the Storm Riders).
A great post!
“But even mylar bikini sexytime must come to an end…” NO! NO! NOOOOOOO!!