It seems China is just as apt at remaking their own blockbusters as we are. A remake of a 1974 film, that itself was a film version of an opera based on a first person account of a real event during the Chinese Civil War, The Taking of Tiger Mountain fills the original with enough action sequences and explosions to please the modern audience. The original film (Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy), produced in 1970, is one of the most watched films of all time, playing in villages several times a year throughout the earlier seventies at a time when failure to attend could have been a sign of political incongruity, according to film historians. Some estimates place the original film as having been seen by 7.3 billion people.
The events of the film, the defeat of a warlord by the People’s Liberation Army (the eventual winner of the civil war), were an important turning point in Chinese history. A scout infiltrated the rogue gang and undermined it from the inside while the small PLA regiment held up in a neighboring village until they could make their well planned attack. Because the film depicts the PLA defeating an obviously awful warlord, there is none of the danger of this playing like anti-West propaganda; there would be no reason to cheer against the PLA, even for a die-hard anti-communist yank. These bandits are terrible, old-school baddies who are harming the common man. So there is no political issue there. That being said, the film suffers from many of the usual pitfalls of propaganda pieces. The story is incredibly one-sided, with no chance to allow the antagonists even a reason for how they became who they are. On the PLA side, all the characters are one hundred percent good, with no flaws, no crises of confidence, no drive other than the issue at hand. Given almost no time to develop as characters before being thrown into melee after melee, the characters are only distinguishable by the way they look, rather than by any personality. Some of the plot lines, especially the attempt to reunite a boy with his mother, are on the bad side of schmaltzy, playing for pathos rather than any real emotion. And there is almost no humor in the film, which makes it tonally repetitive for it slightly too long 136 minute running time.
That being said, the action sequences in The Taking of Tiger Mountain are phenomenal. In fact, anything having to do with the look of the film is exemplary. The costumes are gloriously detailed, from the lavish robes of the evil warlord Hawk, to the worker’s overcoat of PLA medical office Little Dove, everything captures the mood and tension of a country in the midst of a monumental change. The settings, especially the warlord’s keep, look amazing and are well-utilized in inventive battle sequences. And the cinematography keeps the action easy to follow and beautiful to watch. Visually an absolute triumph, The Taking of Tiger Mountain succeeds in updating a classic film for the modern sensibility. In fact, there is barely a dull moment as the troop heads off one assault after another, while the scout pits the bandits against each other on the inside.
As a topic for a film criticism class on propaganda, The Taking of Tiger Mountain would make a fascinating paper. As a feast for the eyes and example of the amazing things that can be done with action sequences, Tsui Hark’s film is an education. As a government-approved retelling of an important historical event in the formation of a country, the film is instructive. As a piece of cinema, with fully realized characters and gripping plot with tonal surprises and true revelations of life, The Taking of Tiger Mountain falls pretty far short. It is however, nice to note, in the wake of EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, and remakes of films like Judge Dredd and oh, I don’t know… ANYTHING, that we are not the only people remaking or cultural heritage for modern sensibilities.
THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN is out now in theatres in NYC, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas, with additional cities added this weekend.