Sunday, June 14, 2015


Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG.

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective. 

Note: This review contains many spoilers.

Zu: Warriors From Magic the Mountain is a classic directed by Tsui Hark, one that brought newly developed special effects techniques to martial arts cinema to create a film brimming with action and magic. Starring Adam Cheng (Ting Yin), Yuen Biao (Ti Ming Qi), Brigitte Lin (Ice Queen), Sammo Hung (Long Brows), Damien Lau (Hsiao-Yu), Yi Chen (Mang Hoi) and Moon Lee (Ice Queen's Guard) and Judy Ongg (Li I-Chi) it was released in 1983.

Tsui Hark is often compared to directors like Spielberg and while the similarities are especially evident in Zu, Hark is no mere Spielberg imitator, he brings his own vision to the screen and radically reshaped the wuxia genre in the 80s and 90s. In my view, his talent continues with recent works, particularly the Detective Dee films. Tsui Hark doesn't just show you a movie, he brings you to enchanted worlds. Even when his movies feature little to no magic, the environments he creates are rich with texture and characters. Zu offers this in abundance, cocooning the viewer in its mythic landscape and dazzling effects. 

Ti Ming Qi and Mang Hoi under watch of
The Ice Queen's Guards
Set in 5th century China the movie begins against the backdrop of civil war. The protagonist, Ti Ming Qi, is a scout in the blue army (this is a color-coded war between reds and blues). While trying to report to his two commanders and follow their orders, he stumbles when they debate attacking by water or land. Caught in the middle, he can satisfy neither (and when he tries to compromise both see his act as insubordination). This forces him to flee where he meets and  befriends a red soldier played by Sammo Hung (who has more than one role in the movie). Neither soldier wants to fight but both are caught in the middle of the ongoing civil war. When their armies catch up with them, they pretend to fight one another and Ti Ming Qi eventually falls off a cliff and finds a passageway into Zu Mountain where the heart of the movie is set. 

Ting and the Ice Queen falling in love
In Zu Ti Ming Qi attaches himself to an immortal named Ting, and wants desperately to be his disciple (he refuses multiple times). The arrival of a Blood Demon threatens the entire world but is contained when they are joined by the immortal Long Brows who uses his Sky Mirror to temporarily imprison the entity. However the mirror's powers will diminish when an impending eclipse comes so Long Brows asks Ting and Ti Ming Qi to retrieve the Twin Swords and bring them back to destroy the blood demon. One of their companions, an abbot named Hsiao-Yu, is poisoned by the blood demon's attack and will himself become a replica of its evil, so they first must go to Fort Flame where he can be healed by the Ice Queen*. 

A misunderstanding leads to a battle with the Ice Queen and her forces. Here Ti Ming Qi is transformed when Ting tries heals him after the fight by unifying his veins. Ting then manages to smooth things over with the Ice Queen and secures her assistance. Later, while helping her heal Hsiao-Yu, Ting and the Ice Queen fall in love and he promises to return after they deal with the demon. Ti Ming Qi spends his time with Mang Hoi (Hsiao-Yu's disciple) under watch of the Ice Queen's guards. When the healing is complete they depart. On the road Ting gives his one of his swords to Ti Ming Qi but he is struck by the blood demon's energy when the sword is drawn and becomes infected in the same manner as Hsiao-Yu. Fearing he will turn into a demon, Ting makes Ti Ming Qi his disciple. They return to Fort Flame but the Ice Queen is too weak from her previous healing to cure him and Ting turns into a Demon. She tries to imprison him by sealing her fortress in ice, but he he breaks free, becoming a key villain in the movie. Ti Ming Qi and Mang Hoi only just manage to escape with their own lives with the help of one of the Queen's guards (played by Moon Lee). 
The Ice Queen/Countess

They go to Heaven's Blade Peak where the Twin Swords are guarded by their protector Li I-Chi. However when they arrive they discover a gate to a great evil (presumably the source of the Blood Demon) protected by an immortal named Heaven's Blade. There Hang Moi and Ti Ming Qi are sucked into the evil void when Ting arrives and tries to enter the evil realm. With the help of Heaven's Blade they are  expunged and finally reach Li I-Ching. She transfers the Twin Blades to them, making the heroes of the swords, telling them the swords are most powerful when their minds work as one.

Flying through the air they battle with Ting, who is destroyed when Ice Queen appears and chooses to sacrifice herself, joining him so they are both annihilated. Ti Ming Qi and Mang Hoi unify their minds and destroy the Blood Demon. 

Plunged into Zu
There are a lot of exceptional scenes in Zu, particularly those enhanced by the special effects. But one of the best in my opinion uses no make-up, editing or tricks of the camera. It is purely an exchange of dialogue at the start of the film when Ti Ming Qi must deal with his disputing commanders. I love this because its rapid-fire wit and because it quickly establishes the theme of duality and internal struggle that plays again and again over the course of the film. There is the civil war itself, the feuding generals on the same side and later in Zu we learn of a much greater conflict between the forces of good and evil, yet here again both these forces are split by internal strife. The movie really sticks to this one simple idea, which is present at just about every point and reflected in just about every relationship established. 

Heaven's Blade
Of course, the special effects are what the movie is known for and with good reason. Though dated by today's standards, Zu's special effects at the time were incredible, particularly for the wuxia genre. Tsui Hark recruited Hollywood special effects specialists Tama Takanashi (Blade Runner), Chris Casady (Star Wars) and Robert Blalack (Star Wars). This not only brought recent effects innovations to Zu, it helped lay the groundwork in Hong Kong for effects in future films. The end result really works well and despite being made in 1983 still holds up. The effects blending with the wirework is particularly exceptional. 

A lot of people complain that Zu is confusing because it zips through so much story in under 100 minutes (the more recent The Legend of Zu receives similar criticism). Hark plunges the viewer into a world filled with enigmatic characters and doesn't take a lot of time to explain the backstory or underlying foundations. While I am sure it was far less confusing to audiences in Hong Kong, who would have been more familiar with the novels of Huanzhu Louzhu on which the film is based, a lot of American viewers had some trouble following all the details of the story. I think as confusing as it can be at first, it works. We are meant to see things from the viewpoint of the main protagonist, who is a mere human who suddenly finds himself in a world of immortal beings and magic places. It is the kind of movie where it is best enjoyed if you just accept things as they come. When the Ice Queen steps on the stage, you accept that she is the Ice Queen, can heal and heeds the flame of fate. You know there is greater depth to this, but you don't need to see the details to understand it rests on larger structure. The story itself is simple enough that the viewer need not grasp every little element for it to work (we don't need to know why the Sky Mirror contains the demon, it does and that is enough for us to move forward). 

An example of the environment Hark creates
The rapid movement of the film is also one of its great strengths. It moves in the way Raiders of the Lost Ark moved. From beginning to end there isn't a dull moment. It stars with a scout fleeing from his allies, progresses into a great melee in the forest and then works its way into the temples and hidden passages of Zu where the hero immediately confronts demonic forces and immortal beings. This can be confusing but it is also exhilarating.  

Like a lot of films in the genre (particularly in the 80s and 90s) this one has plenty of comedy. Initially the comedy is heavier at the start of the movie, but it recedes as the story begins to take center stage. In the hands of performers like Sammo Hung, the comedy works well and helps you drop your guard a bit. 

The characters and action are so colorful
it is easy to miss the beautiful sets
For gaming there is so much to take inspiration from. From start to finish, any GM should find inspiration for dungeons, backstories, NPCs, monsters and more. This is the kind of movie where you see things on the screen and instantly see how they would fit into an adventure. 

Definitely recommend this for anyone who likes fantasy films or martial arts movies. strongly recommend it for gamers. If you like it, you might also want to check out The Legend of Zu, which was released in 2001. Should I have time I will do a post on that and talk about the two different versions available.   

*Note these names and places vary a lot depending on the version you watch. 

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