THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN has blood, guts, and sentiment. Based on actual events, and on the novel by Bo Qu, it’s a sweeping epic of a war film set in northwest China just after World War II has ended, when the government has collapse into corruption, bandits are terrorizing the villages, and the People’s Liberation Army is struggling to get a foothold in the Chinese Civil War. There are heroes, villains, a doughty little boy, and, in keeping with the title, a tiger.
The small but stalwart PLA squad is led by Captain 203 (Kenny Lin), who, as the film begins, is down to rations that are more water than soup, and a troubling lack of munitions as the winter snows approach. They are also being mistaken for the neighborhood bandits, thanks to said bandits dressing as soldiers when the loot and pillage. Help is on the way, though, in the person of Yang (Hanyu Zhang), a smooth-talking stranger from headquarters traveling with Bai (Liya Tong) a medical officer HQ also sent along. Bai is a comely lass, and is soon dubbed Little Dove by the squad’s motley crew of dedicated freedom fighters. She also comes in handy as a mother figure for the refugee child that mistakes the squad for bandits and has to be tamed, the which, of course, he is, and then goes on to turn the gruff soldiers into teddy bears.
It’s madness, and hopeless, but with so much at stake, including the villagers who take in the squad, Yang comes up with a daring plan. He will infiltrate Lord Hawk’s gang by pretending to be a defector from his rival, and once inside, help 203 destroy the stronghold from the inside.When it comes to light that the government is planning to set the two local rival gangs against each other, but not before they have decimated the PLA squad, 203 realizes that he must take action against the more powerful of the bandits, Lord Hawk (Tony Ka Fai Leung), by storming the former Japanese stronghold where he holds sway on top of the eponymous mountain.
Like all good plans, it’s simple and straightforward. Like all good action films, it’s never that easy. What ensues are close calls, dangerous suspicions, and a femme fatale with a secret that might ruin Yang’s plan.
Originally released in 3D, there is a stylization to the action that bespeaks bullets, wild beasts, and an avalanche spilling off the screen directly at the audience. That, coupled with a Peckinpah-esque slo-mo approach to displaying carnage lend a balletic quality to the proceedings. Bullet strikes produces great gobbets of blood and other assorted ejecta that arch gracefully into space as they produce grief and death. There is also an exuberance to the battle sequences, with skirmish piled on skirmish with imaginative variations involving horses, kludged cannons, too many close calls to count.
None of this, as nicely realized as it is, would work if there people involved weren’t capable of engaging us emotionally. And fortunately, among the archetypes, there is Yang. With a rakish beard, patent-leather hair, a tone of conviction and endless tricks up his sleeve, he is a charismatic enigma. An actor of less charisma and sheer star power would have made him a caricature, but Zhang Hanyu makes for an effortlessly commanding presence. Where Lin Gengxin as the captain is handsome, brave, wise, and compassionate, Zhang is bold, fearless, clever, and, well, also compassionate. He’s just more fun playing cat and mouse with his rivals as he worms his way into Lord Hawk’s confidence with an unmistakable trace of a twinkle in his eye. He’s even more fun being the mouse to a rampaging tiger in a battle of wits among the trees. You don’t doubt for a minute that he can not only pull it off, but do so with a stylish panache. As his nemesis, Lord Hawk, former matinee idol Tony Leung Kar-Fai is transformed into a decaying lump of flesh beneath of mountain of luxuriant furs, but with a sneer and a sinister sang froid that makes even the way he sits seem dangerous. As Bai, Tong Liya is suitably nurturing and tough, with an ability to let a single tear drop from one eye that evinces a world of grief.
THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN could get to the point a bit more quickly. While the framework of a Chinese man traveling home to China in the present does pay off with resounding success in terms of tying up the story and offering a literal flight of fancy, a half-hour or so could easily be trimmed from the initial introduction of 302 and Yang. Once it gets going, it’s a thrill-packed adventure with soldiers on skis, murderous plot twists, precipitous zip-lining, and cut-throat mah jong.