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Plot: various factions wage war over the Twin Swords of Earth and Sky

After his New Wave period – encompassing the three features The Butterfly Murders (1979), We’re Going to Eat You (1980), and Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind (1980) – director/producer Tsui Hark started working for Cinema City Company and Golden Harvest, the company founded by Shaw Brothers exile Raymond Chow. Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) - produced by Paragon Films for Golden Harvest - revolutioned the way special effects were used in the fantasy wuxia genre and established Tsui Hark as both a visionary and innovator. In fact the sheer number and complexity of the effects were unprecedented in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Derived from stories of mythology and antiquity and with an all-star cast of established and new talent Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain was nominated 5 times at the 3rd Hong Kong Film Awards (Best Action Choreography - Corey Yuen, Best Actress - Brigitte Lin, Best Art Direction - William Chang, Best Film Editing - Peter Cheung and Best Picture) and set Tsui Hark on course in becoming ‘the Steven Spielberg of Asia’.

Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is probably the single most important movie in the early Tsui Hark canon. It was the transitional title in his evolution from low-budget (and largely commercially unsuccesfull) cinematographer to being the master of big-budget fantasy – and period costume wuxia. For the production of Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain Hark founded Film Workshop and Cinefex and brought in Western special effects artisans to help him create 'the ultimate Chinese mythological spectacular'. Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain was adapted from Lee Sau-Man’s 64 volume novel, “The Legend of the Zu Mountain Warriors,” and manages to squeeze 50 volumes into a nearly two-hour epic. Among the cast are Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Corey Yuen Kwai as well as Brigitte Lin, Moon Lee, and Judy Ongg. Widely regarded as the Hong Kong equivalent to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) it made a staggering 15 million HK dollars at the box office and set the stage for Tsui Hark to helm even more ambitious projects. Art director William Chang would later become a key collaborator with director Wong Kar-Wai.

Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) is a Western Army scout during the Tang Dynasty. He is tired of the near-constant state of war the country is in. Chased from the battlefield for simultaneously obeying and disobeying direct orders from two different generals;. he runs into an equally disillusioned Eastern Army soldier (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and the two agree on the absurdity of the conflict and the futility of the concept of war. The two bond over the fact that they are indeed neighbors and pretend to be killed in order to escape the chaos and bloodshed. After making their escape from an invading faction Di Ming Qi falls into a crevasse and a thunderstorm forces him to retreat into a nearby cave to seek shelter and relative safety. The cave is part of the Zu mountainrange, in the Bazu region of Western China, a place of great strategic importance in times of war – and home to fabled antediluvian legends and primordial arcane mysteries. Without realizing it Di Ming Qi will soon find himself engaging in an epic battle for survival between the dominating forces of the terrestrial and the ethereal.

In the bowels of Zu, the Magic Mountain Di Ming Qi is beset by supernatural horrors until Ding Yin (Adam Cheng) comes to his rescue. Di Ming Qi vows to become Ding Yin’s pupil in order to pay his lifedebt. The two are attacked by the Blood Devil, a supreme evil manifesting itself as animated red cloths, that has been held at bay for the past century by powerful but aging monk Chang Mei, or Long Brows (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo). The Blood Devil feeds itself with the skulls of young boys and despite Chang Mei’s valiant attempts to contain it, he will only be able to hold off the Blood Devil for 49 more days before he too becomes corrupted by the demon’s malignant powers. They find allies in Xiao Ru (Damien Lau) and Yi Zhen (Mang Hoi), or Wisdom and Innocence as international translations call them, a master and pupil from Kunlun. Chang Mei instructs them to find the Celestial Swords to defeat the ancient hatred. They must seek Lei Yikkei, the current keeper of the Twin Swords of Earth and Sky, who according to legend meditated and practiced in a Tin-Ngoi-Tin cave. The four first face off against the Evil Cult, led by the Devil Disciple (Hark-On Fung), in the Sek-Lam temple. In the skirmish Xiao Ru is injured and the cure can only be found at Yiu-Chi-Sin fortress.

Before arriving at the fortification the group witnesses The Red Witch, a sorceress of unexplained origin. At the Celestial Fortress the fellowship is beset by a legion of female warriors under command of Mu Sang (Lee Choi-Fong, as Moon Lee). Lady Li I-Chi (Ha Kwong-Li) explains that they don’t take kind to the unannounced intrusion. Their pleads for help fall on deaf ears and Lady Li I-Chi exposits that the “immortal ice flame of the fort” signals the arrival of the Countess Of Jade Pond (Brigitte Lin). Ding Yin uses his magic to artificially keep the flame burning forcing the Countess to grant them a visitation. To their dismay the Countess is the same red-clad sorceress they met earlier, and the group understandably attacks her. Di Ming Qi is injured during the altercation and is healed by Ding Yin. The Countess Of Jade Pond reluctantly agrees to heal the wounded Xiao Ru. The process takes its toll on the Countess leading her to faint. Ding Yin hurries to her rescue, embarassing her while at it, but the two come to like each other. Ding Yin hands Di Ming Qi a sword but the latter soon finds out that the sword has been poisoned by the Red Witch. Di Ming Qi realizes that he’s bound to fall victim to the same possession Xiao Ru was just cured of. The Countess wants to help, but is too exhausted from the previous healing session. Ding Yin asks that she kill him, a request that draws her ire and soon the two factions are engaged in a battle that eventually leaves the Celestial Fortress encased in ice. Di Ming Qi, Yi Zhen, and head guard Mu Sang somehow are able to escape the frozen onslaught.

The three continue their journey and eventually run into Tin Dou (Norman Chu Siu-Keung), who international versions refer to as Heaven’s Blade, who has kept the unholy forces of evil at bay for over a century somewhere at the border between heaven and hell. Ding Yin, now completely overtaken by evil, appears but Di Ming Qi courageously battles him with one of his own swords until they are sucked into the lungs of hell. Tin Dou sacrifices himself to allow the duo to escape. Once they have regained their composure they notice two swords – green and purple – overhead and soon they find Lei Yikkei (Judy Ongg, as Weng Qian-Yu) on a nearby peak. Lei Yikkei informs them that time is running out and that they have to be united, in spirit and heart, in order to wield the Twin Swords of Earth and Sky. Lei Yikkei joins the unification existing within the two combined warriors. While all of this is transpiring the Countess Of Jade Pond meets the quarrelling Western and Eastern armies, but their common greater enemy leads them to working together. Once again the demonic Ding Yin appears, but with the last of her sorcery the Countess is able to defeat the monk. Just as the Blood Devil is to be unleashed, the Dual Swords are combined and the ancient hatred is defeated. Now having acquired near god-like powers the youths dedicate themselves to uniting the people of earth.

Brigitte Lin as the Countess Of Jade Pond

Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin came from the Golden Harvest stable and was an experienced veteran from over 100 movies. Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance, but towards the late 1970s veered towards historical drama, war, and action productions, before becoming a pillar in period costume wuxia in the eighties and nineties. Lin was a frequent collaborator with director Chu Yin-Ping in her earlier days and Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain marked her reinvention under Tsui Hark. Lin scored her first role of note with the modest The Ghost Of the Mirror (1974), a loose adaption of Pu-Sing Ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio that Hark himself would adapt a few years later as A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Lin initially found fame with cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). She was a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee but didn’t win one such award until Red Dust (1990). The award led to a second peak in her career with the likes of Dragon Gate Inn (1992) and Swordman II (1992). Lin would be put in a white wig in the fantasy wuxia The Bride with White Hair (1993), in both the original and its sequel as well as in the disastrous and widely derided Louis Cha adaptation Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994).

Moon Lee as high guard Mu Sang

Before becoming a regular in the Girls with Guns HK action genre Moon Lee scored her first role of note as Mu Sang, high guard of the Countess Of Jade Pond in Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain. In the following years Lee established herself as one of Hong Kong’s most elegant low-budget action stars by appearing in Teresa Woo San’s Girls with Guns archetype Angel (1987) alongside Yukari Oshima and Elaine Liu. For the next 6 years Lee would star in over 25 different action productions, including Princess Madam (1989), Devil Hunters (1989), Mission of Condor (1991), Mission of Justice (1992) and Kickboxer's Tears (1992). By 1993 the Girls with Guns genre was all but spent with budgets dwindling even further and productions relocating to the Philippines, Lee bade the acting profession farewell. Norman Chu was a Shaw Bros veteran who played a variety of roles in offerings as diverse as The Flying Guillotine (1975), The Mighty Peking Man (1977), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Duel to the Death (1983), Sea Wolves (1991). Chu was a regular in Louis Cha adaptations appearing in The Battle Wizard (1977), Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1982) as well as Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994).

Judy Ongg as Lei Yikkei during the unification of the Twin Swords of Earth and Sky

Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a milestone in Hong Kong cinema for all the right reasons. It’s a nearly two-hour, special effects tour de force of wondrously grand proportions that sets a bunch of beautiful young people on a perilous epic quest to defeat an ancient evil. It’s a veritable high point of Hong Kong cinema that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with an interest in cinema, Asian or otherwise. With a cast including Yuen Biao, Adam Cheng, Damian Lau, Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen, Brigitte Lin, Moon Lee and Judy Ongg Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a gathering of current and soon-to-be HK superstars and a young director with talent to spare. No wonder Tsui Hark went on to become one of the most revered Asian directors. Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain brims with energy and is a visual spectacle to behold. Just four years later Hark would force his international breakthrough with the ghost romance A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong. If anything, Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain very much sets the stage for that.

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Developed by Naughty Dog
Published by Sony
Written & directed by Amy Hennig
Music by Greg Edmonson
Starring Nolan North, Richard McGonagle, Emily Rose, Robin Atkin Downes, Simon Templeman, James Sie

Drake’s Fortune” is the first installment of Naughty Dog’s lauded Uncharted series, an action/cover shooter inspired by pulpy adventure novels, serials and literature. In a lot of ways it is the video game equivalent of the original three Indiana Jones movies.

Uncharted-drakes-fortuneThe game starts off with Nathan Drake (Nolan North) and TV journalist Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) finding a 400 year old diary in the coffin of sir Francis Drake, who was buried at sea, somewhere on the coast of Panama. The duo is ambushed by pirates, before being rescued by Drake’s mentor and partner, Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle). From that point on, they are beset by enemies from various angles, and they need to haul ass and shoot their way out in order to survive and uncover what happened to Francis Drake. They need to uncover Drake’s fortune.

The first Uncharted is different in a number of ways from the sequels that would follow in the wake of its success. The most notable among these differences is that everything takes place on one location, the uncharted island in question on which Drake strands. Another difference is that this first episode is static for the most part, with only a handful of cinematic events that would later become the series’ calling card.

What this first chapter did offer was a cast of loveable, but underwritten characters for the protagonists as well as the trio of antagonists. This chapter has rogue adventurer Nathan Drake, intrepid reporter Elena Fisher and father figure/mentor Victor Sullivan – along with loan shark Gabriel Roman (Simon Templeman), mercenary Attoq Navarro (Robin Atkin Downes) and pirate chief Eddie Raja (James Sie) who has a personal vendetta against Drake.

Uncharted-drakes-fortune-screen-2One of the hallmarks of the series is the combination of platforming (traversal), hand-to-hand melee combat, light puzzling and cover-based shooting galleries. While all these elements are generally easy and not hard to figure out, its the intuitive combination of those that gives the title remarkable replayability and longevity. There isn’t a whole lot that can be told about the story, as it is fairly typical for the genre. Loyalties are tested, discoveries are made, bonds are forged and lots of stuff blows up. Naughty Dog made sure to emphasize the action part of their action/adventure. In case you are expecting adventure in the old Sierra tradition, you will sadly find it not here, despite the posturing and cinematic gravitas.

Not to say that Uncharted is narratively empty or horribly executed, far from it. In fact, this game is probably the hallmark to which most contemporary titles, for good or ill, tend to aspire. That is to say, the story facilitates a reasonable excuse for big setpieces and some ridiculous plot twists. The story itself is your run-of-the-mill pulpy adventure, taking cues from Indiana Jones, Allan Quatermain, the old Tomb Raider and Pitfall games and literature of the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson to name a few obvious and hard to miss sources.

The level design is a lot more open compared to later installments, but it is never hard to tell exactly when all hell is about to break loose. Just walking around the various parts of the island will have the player discover different pieces of cover and places to hide behind. After the first firefight, you can easily predict when you’ll need to take up your firearms for another wave of enemies. The levels are linear in design, and exploration is fairly limited unless you are in a location where exploration is the main goal. At least there are no invisible walls, but the straightforwardness of the endeavour is both a plus and a negative. The game has a high level of replayability, but it doesn’t try very hard.

CtxUiDKpzAnother thing that I touched upon earlier is that “Drake’s Fortune” is a lot more static compared to later sequels, and a couple of vehicle sections only serve as padding to get the next location for a setpiece or shootout. This staticness also reveals itself in the second half of the game, as you’re running around in circles on the uncharted island. In this case even literally, as Drake will over the course of the game visit key locations from two or three different angles (the monastery is a particular gruelling example of this). You might not notice it on your first playthrough, but in repeated play sessions it becomes all the more obvious. Thankfully this was ironed out in later sequels.

Exclusive to this title are also about three or four vehicle sections, in which you control Drake and Fisher simultaneously by driving the waterscooter and shooting enemies on the shore. There are only a few of these sections, thankfully. They aren’t especially bad per se, but it is a good thing they were abandoned after this chapter. The sections are functional, but serve no real purpose other than getting the protagonists to the next set piece or location. There’s an on-rails shooting gallery in which Elena drives a jeep and Nathan is holding off approaching enemies on motorbikes and military vehicles. It isn’t half-assed to the slightest degree, it just doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience either. It somewhat telling that exactly these sections were cut out for the sequels. They weren’t mechanically bad, but the chance to play as Elena was at least a nice touch. Even though this is only limited to two or three small sections of the game.

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In comparison to a lot of video games that came around this period, it is instantly recognizable due to its wide color palette and vivid color scheme. The locations are lively and colorful, with animated fauna and flora. Where a lot of games were grey, brown-ish, this game has lush greens, blues, reds and yellows – all warm colors that exude an exotic and tropical feeling. Walking through out jungles, and past bodies of water, you can almost feel the sun as you walk out of the shadows into the blazing light. This is another facet of the game that would be expanded and explored in later sequels to a much more detailed degree. The vistas, interiors and exteriors are breathtakingly beautiful – and a lot of the time it is unfortunate this is an action game first, and an adventure game second. Just imagine what this game could have been had this been a traditional point-and-click adventure. The possibilties are just endless.

One of the classic problems that rears its ugly head early on is the one of ludo-narrative dissonance. Through out the cutscenes and dialogues it is made clear that Nathan Drake is generally a pacifist, only resorting to violence when cornered and he doesn’t like to incessantly and violently murder at random. This is, of course, at odds with the cover-shooter gameplay and the majority of what makes up the single campaign of this title. This is not a problem specifically related to the Uncharted series, but most of this type video games in general. That isn’t to say that the writing is poor. Let it be known that Uncharted as a whole is one of better written franchises in contemporary gaming. That doesn’t change the fact that writing (as a general rule of thumb) isn’t exactly exemplary or strong in most video games narratives to begin with, the standards aren’t very high.

One of the most outstanding scenes in regard to ludonarrative dissonance happens in the ‘Drowned City’ chapter, as Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher escape with the skin of their teeth from pirate chief Eddie Raja. After once again being ambushed and shot at from multiple angles, Drake imparts to Fisher that he wants to give up, considering they are outnumbered, outgunned and he doesn’t want to have her bullet-ridden corpse on his conscious. Never mind that you spent a good hour or so previous shooting numerous nameless mooks to kingdom come, yet here he is strangely comfortable shooting down hordes of armed pirates, para-military forces and mercenaries the next minute now that he feels the damsel of the piece is in danger. This ongoing inconsistency in tone is aggravating to say the least, and it gets even more annoying once you really stop to think about it and see how many times this thing occurs through the entire single player campaign. Let us not even dig into the nebulous and insidious implications this has as far as gender roles is concerned between our two loveable main protagonists. At least Naughty Dog tried.

In comparison to a lot of other franchises, and video games in general, Uncharted does well in its representation of the female gender. Not only is Elena Fisher an intelligent, level-headed, resourceful and competent character in her own right: quick with her wits, fists and capable with a gun, she also dresses in the proper attire for the situation. The opening level ‘Ambushed’ has her in an all-covering wetsuit, no needless showing of skin or cleavage. Later levels continue this sensible fashion decision with Fisher wearing a tanktop, knee-level shorts and sturdy walking shoes. Other than that it happens more than once that Fisher ends up saving the supposed hero of the story, Drake. The banter between Drake and Fisher is well-written, and both characters can be heard changing tone as they get deeper into the situation. There is a growing respect, and mutual admiration (or adoration, in case of Drake) between Drake and Fisher. Sullivan’s role as father figure (later explored more thoroughly in the third episode) works excellent with Drake’s youthful bravado, and Elena Fisher’s voice of reason.

In that regard Uncharted is better than 70%-80% of other games on the market as it trusts its audience in not being drooling baboons that need to obsess over virtual T&A and teasing. Instead it avoids lowest common denominator pandering altogether and the characters are much better for it. This still is a total sausagefest, as Elena Fisher is the only female character for this installment. As the saying goes, less is more – and in this case it rings true. Overall, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a highly responsive modern cover-shooter with a classic adventure paintjob. Anybody who has seen a number of genre movies or read some literature will find no surprises in the story at any point. Nevertheless is this a fun game that is a whole lot more mature and intelligent than a great majority of others currently clogging the shelves in retail stores.