Despite touting a feline in its title, The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D features only one tiger in a single fight scene in the entire movie. Nonetheless, there is never any shortage of tension throughout this film.
Based on an adaptation of Qu Bo’s 1957 adventure novel, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, director Tsui Hark (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) transforms a historical event into a non-stop action adventure. The book was also the source for a Maoist revolutionary play for the Beijing Opera and performed throughout China. However, the film does little in tackling political agendas, focusing instead on the theme of bad guys versus good. And, other than the “j-word” (a slur for Japanese) being liberally flung around, there’s not much discussion about governments or foreign enemies. Instead, the good guys are People’s Liberation Army soldiers and the bad guys are a gang of ruthless bandits terrorizing the region.
The film opens with a contemporary holiday party scene and a young Westernized Asian man named Jimmy (Han Geng). Celebrating the landing of a new job in Silicon Valley, he makes a last-minute decision not to board a plane headed to it, but visits his home village in China instead. There, he learns the story of Tiger Mountain and the role his ancestors played in its conquest. The audience is then propelled back to 1946, to China’s Northeast provinces, following Japan’s World War II defeat and the advent of the Chinese civil war.
As impoverished civilians attempt to rebuild their lives in their post-war environment, they’re preyed upon by a posse of well-organized ruffians led by the cruel Lord Hawk played by Tony Leung Ka-fai. In a sometimes over-the-top performance, the star is often shot in stark, full profile to better flaunt his sharp, beak-like fake nose. His sadism unmatched, Hawk even executes a few of his own loyal followers to prove a point. Surrounded by a multitude of sinister-looking brutes, Hawk lives lavishly in his Tiger Mountain fortress.
Enter, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in pursuit of the thugs, their hoard of gold, munitions and the “Advance Map” that promises power to its owner. Captain 203 (of unit 203), played capably by Lin Gengxin, sends an investigator to infiltrate and destroy the gang from within. That mole is Officer Yang (Zhang Hanyu) whose calm demeanor and steely courage makes him believable to the suspicious Hawk. Scenes where Yang’s true identity is on the precipice of discovery are among the most suspenseful in the movie.
Other characters include a sensitive soldier (Gao Hu) who bonds with an abandoned boy (called Little Knotti because of his dreadlocked hair) and Little Dove (Tong Liya), a nurse slash soldier who can shoot as well as mend the wounded. There’s also Knotti’s abducted mother (Yu Nan) who turns up on Tiger Mountain in a compromising position.
Utilizing a stark white snow shot in a spectrum of blue tints, Tsui plays up its contrast against spilled crimson blood. With bullets whizzing by in slow motion, thunderous tanks, and soldiers on skis soaring down steep peaks, there’s almost no need for the requisite climactic scene—that of an airplane stuck between two mountain crests that becomes the stage for Hawk and Yang’s final battle.
For the most part, CGI is used creatively, but at times it’s obviously done to accommodate the film’s 3D format. Elaborate period costumes appear genuine and highly detailed, but some of the music seems forced, like the James Bond-style tune indicating urgency in a rescue scene and the marching band melody that appears when the military does.
Overall, though, Tsui Hark seems to be in total control of this epic picture. Born in Saigon to ethnic Chinese parents, Tsui immigrated with his family to Hong Kong as a teen; then, later attended two colleges in Texas. Not surprisingly, he often displays a global sensibility in the creation of panoramic pictures that include minute details. Even though Tiger Mountain is chock full of avalanches, fiery crashes, and things getting blown up, it’s ultimately a story that really happened. And, unlike that untamed tiger in the earlier-mentioned scene, the movie has many restrained moments even as it takes the audience on a wild and thrilling ride through the glacial peaks of Tiger Mountain.
‘The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D’ opens January 9, AMC Pacific Place, Seattle.