First the facts:

Directed by Hong Kong cinema legend Tsui Hark, fantasy adventure martial arts film Zu Warriors (1983) was one of the early players in the 1980s regeneration of Hong Kong cinema.

OK, so that's not so much a fact as an observation, but the influence of Zu on future films and directors is undeniable. After Big Trouble in Little China was released, its director John Carpenter said of Zu warriors:

"I was always a fan of kung fu movies. I had seen Five Fingers of Death and the Bruce Lee movies in the Seventies. Zu (Warriors) gave me a lot of ideas with regard to depicting the nature of Chinese monsters and the supernatural in Big Trouble."
Filmed in the studio in Hong Kong, and on location in Taiwan, Zu Warriors took a gruelling year to film. The film's substantial budget allowed for exceptional special effects, enriched by the expertise of some Hollywood folk with an effects CV that included Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Tron. A cast of stars was assembled, including Hong Kong legend Brigitte Lin, appearing alongside Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Adam Cheng, and Man Hoi, alongside newcomer Moon Lee, a 16-year old making her film debut; schoolgirl by day, hot sword-wielding fairy by evening's light.

The film received four nominations1at the Hong Kong film awards. Sadly, resentment of the involvement of the Western effects artists led to political pressures that ultimately meant the film missed out on all four awards.

Enough facts, on with the story:

Set in ancient China, Zu Warriors tells the perfectly normal everyday tale of an army scout, Dik Mingkei, who saves the world from the tyrannous and evil rule of the blood monster, with the help of an old man with exceedingly long and powerful facial hair and a shareware sky mirror that only works for 49 days, some fairies, defeating his wicked-cool gone sadly bad teacher in the process.

Already I can see that I've skipped a few story details, so I'll try to fill in the gaps. Scouting for the blue army loses its appeal for Dik when his two leaders disagree on a course of action, leaving him unable not to disobey at least one of them. So, he flees on his horse, and meets and ultimately befriends a counterpart from the red army. Together they attempt to avoid involvement in the conflict, which by now has escalated into a four-way battle. After fighting each other so as not to draw attention to themselves (and in the process fighting all four sides, in some deftly choreographed comically adept fight scenes) they play dead, only to find that everyone around them is employing the same trick. Retreating, Dik is pushed over a cliff by his fleeing friend.

Sensibly, he seeks shelter in the first menacing looking cave he comes across, without realising that he's stumbled upon Zu Mountain. Inside, strange beasts with bright eyes attack him, but hurrah! his enigmatic future master Ding Yan (Adam Cheng) of the Nam Hoi school arrives to rescue him with some dazzling swordplay. The interplay between the two, and in fact between many of the characters in the film, is reminiscent of the Wes Craven / Scream self-referential school, with the hero complaining to himself that "These heroic types always appear and disappear unexpectedly", or being lambasted for his stupidity in asking which side Sammo Young is on, with the retort "Of course I'm good. Do bad guys wear white? Look carefully!"

In the cave, Ding Yan bickers with Buddhist rival Hiu Yu, leader of the Kwan Leun school, who has turned up with his "idiot student" to fight the powers of evil and claim some glory at the same time. The pair reluctantly team up, until Hiu is poisoned. The fellowship seek help from the ice queen, who can cure him, but not without tiring herself or falling in love with Ding in the process, while Dik finds time to fall for Moon Lee. Returning to their quest, Ding is poisoned, becomes evil, and the ice queen freezes her palace after failing to cure him, trapping Hiu, but not Dik, the "idiot student" or Moon Lee's fairy (hooray!). The three set off to find the twin green and purple swords that will save the world, have a chat with an old man who's chained himself up outside the entrance to the evil world. the idiot assistant proves his courage, they meet Lei Yikkei, become guardians of the swords, and head off to fight Dik's evil ex-teacher, remembering not to cross the beams let the swords touch until their thoughts are as one.

I won't tell you who wins, though. To see whether good or evil triumph, watch the film (or read this section more carefully.)

It's a superb film. I watched it once years ago, one Christmas eve, so there's a little personal nostalgia in all this, but I still love it. Granted, it's uneven in places, but the fight scenes are superbly manoeuvred, and the comedy is well-executed.

One story becomes two: Zu: Time warriors.

What really makes Zu Warriors special is the remade cash-in version, designed to bring the film to a wider audience (or make more money, you decide.) To make a ghastly messy goo of the original, strip the whole armies railing against each other story line, the good versus evil debates, and much of the mythological grandeur of the original, and replace them with the following story line:

Yuen Biao plays a champion fencer who piques one of his rivals with startling ability, and because he makes a fool out of him in the first scene. He writes an essay on the Ming Dynasty, which is received favourably by his tutor, who nonetheless sends him to an exhibition on the subject, which is conveniently showing at the local gallery. On visiting the gallery, our hero is particularly drawn to a mural featuring a pretty hot looking chick, who happens to look more than a bit like Moon Lee. Also, every time he gets in his car, he sees a hot chick who looks a lot like the hot chick who looks like Moon Lee. He eventually gets to meet and spend the night with her, but only after he cuts his lip fighting off the rival and his two goons. Suddenly Yuen, or someone who looks a lot like him anyway, is in the mural standing heroically besides the girl who looks... and so on.

A Tarot reading reveals that he must bring his past and present lives together. A girl is important. He's a desperate man, and tears off to find the girl again, only to see her standing in the middle of the road on a dangerous bend, such is the folly of youth. Rather than run her over, though, he swerves, crashes his car and falls into a coma. Luckily its the kind of coma in which you are transported to... ancient China, where he meets, and wins over Moon Li in scenes from the original film that weren't by this stage in the cutting room bin.

He wakes up (hooray!), he's almost unscathed by the accident (hurrah!), the girl is outside (huzzah!). And they all lived happily ever after.

Happier than anyone involved in the taking of a fine fantasy comedy action adventure and turning it into a below-par Hollywood love story, I expect. It's just as well the acting and dubbing in the remake are so weak, or it might not have been laughable enough to be worth bothering with.

1. Best Action Choreography, Corey Yuen; Best Actress, Brigitte Lin; Best Art Direction, William Chang; Best Film Editing, Chi Kwong Shek
John Carpenter quote, and useful background appears at

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