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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.

Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be a ghost

A sadly little-seen and underappreciated gem in the ghost romance pantheon is Ghost Of the Mirror from director Sung Tsun-Shou. Significant for being the first major role for Brigitte Lin it is overlooked in favor of Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both of which tell the same story. Headed by Shih Chun from A Touch Of Zen (1961) and helmed by a director that specialized in drama and romance Ghost Of the Mirror is a historical curiosity that shouldn’t be the obscurity that it tends to be. Lin and Sung Tsun-Shou joined forces once again for the romance The Story Of Green House (1980). Ghost Of the Mirror is in dire need of a proper restoration. Hopefully some company will rise to the task of properly restoring, remastering and subtitling this forgotten piece of ghost romance history for rediscovery for the English-speaking world.

Brigitte Lin (right) and co-star Chiang Wei-Min (left)

Brigitte Lin is one of the great leading ladies of Hong Kong cinema, a veritable queen of the period costume and fantasy wuxia genre, and a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee. She was a veteran from over 100 movies. Of the four movies that Lin acted in in 1973-74 Ghost Of the Mirror was the most significant for being her first major role. Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance and Ghost Of the Mirror was her earliest period costume wuxia of note. Lin is often remembered for her cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and her celebrated reinvention under Tsui Hark in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). Brigitte Lin is an actress from the non-verbal school of acting who conveys more with just her eyes and face than most other actors do with the combination dialog and gestures.

Ghost Of the Mirror, for all intents and purposes, is a loose adaptation of Pu-Sing Ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio which had been adapted earlier with Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) with Chao Lei and Betty Loh Tih and a decade later with Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong. Chang Yung-Hsiang was a Taiwanese screenwriter that specialized in romance. While all the characters and locations have different names it’s rather evident that Ghost Of the Mirror is a direct imitation of Pu-Sing Ling’s most famous work without infringing upon the copyright. It too follows a righteous scholar in a remote location who falls for the charms of a doomed maiden, ensnared by a malignant force he can’t possibly begin to comprehend. It was probably down to a lack of resources that Ghost Of the Mirror wasn’t able to secure the licensing rights for their adaptation of the work. The score too seems randomly put together from stock library music as well as cues from Akira Ikufube's theme from Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) and the various darker, slightly spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ from 1971’s “Meddle”.

An unnamed Buddhist scholar who everybody refers to as Young Noble (Shih Chun) is instructed by his ailing mother (Chang Ping-Yu) to copy a number of sacred Sutra a hundred times to appease the gods to improve her failing health. To that end Young Noble agrees to relocate to remote, quiet surroundings, abstaining from consuming meat and liquor, bathing regularly, and avoiding the company of women. He sends his young servant Ching (Chiang Wei-Min) to scout a possible location and soon the moving is underway. Ching believes the well on the property is haunted but Young Noble discounts it as mere childish superstition. As he prepares himself to start copying the Sutras he soon feels a presence inexplicable. He soon discovers that the house is haunted by Su-Su (Brigitte Lin, as Pai Yin), the ghost of a girl drowned in the well who can only come out at night and is forced to kill people in servitude to the Dragon. Ching eventually finds a mirror in the well and when Young Noble sends him away after his find the mirror turns out to contain the essence of a second ghost, Yuenyi (or Yao Ying) who looks exactly like Su-Su but has a completely different personality. Under the influence of her malefic enslaver Yuenyi attempts to strangle Young Noble with her sari but she resists the Dragon’s ectoplasmatic force as she deems him too righteous to kill.

As a lifedebt of sorts for resisting the Dragon’s power Yuenyi suggests to be his servant for the duration of his assigned transcription task. Enamored of both the reserved Su-Su and the more enterprising Yuenyi, Young Noble explores the caves beneath the well and finds a bronze mirror in a box. Now that the mirror is out in the open it allows Su-Su and Yuenyi to keep him company in daytime as well. As time elapses Su-Su and Yuenyi start to merge into one. At this point Young Noble’s mother pays her dutiful son an unexpected visit at the isolated mansion and is initially disappointed to find him in the presence of a woman, something which he agreed to abstain from. Su-Su/Yuenyi explains that her intentions are nothing but honorable, and the old matriarch allows the two of them to be together, knowing full well that Su-Su/Yuenyi is a ghost. On the way back to the abandoned mansion the two run into a devilish old lady who turns out to be a manifestation of the Dragon. Young Noble continues with the completion of his transcriptions and the two decide to shield the house with Sutras he has already finished as a measure against attacks from the Dragon. In the night the Dragon attacks the mansion to reclaim his prized possession, Su-Su/Yuenyi. While he’s unable to save Su-Su/Yuenyi from certain death, Young Noble’s righteousness is powerful enough to exile the Dragon from the realm of the living, at least for the time being.

The on-screen romance between Shih Chun and Brigitte Lin remains quite chaste at all times. The contrasting personalities of Su-Su and Yuenyi allow Lin to showcase her versatility as an actress – and even this early on it’s clear that she was destined for superstardom given the proper means and vehicle. Su-Su is very reserved, aloof and content in her subservience while Yuenyi possesses a greater joie de vivre. She loves to dance, wears colorful veils and has an overall more positive frame of mind. Obviously the victim of a great tragedy the heart of Su-Su/Yuenyi is restored when she makes her acquaintance with Young Noble. Lin’s breakthrough would come with Tsui Hark’s mythological spectacle Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). In some two decades hence from Ghost Of the Mirror – and after some considerable career peaks in between – Lin would find herself on the lower end of the spectrum once again with the disastrous and widely derided Louis Cha adaptation Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994).

Ghost Of the Mirror has been largely eclipsed by the two adaptations before and after it. Shaw Bros’ The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both told of a doomed and tragic romance between a Buddhist scholar and a ghostly maiden, and did so with far higher production values and to much greater effect. In its defense it isn’t as if Brigitte Lin wasn’t a suitable alternative to Betty Loh Tih and Joey Wong. Screenwriter Chang Yung-Hsiang certainly hits all the right notes in the story and the doomed romance between the two lovers is well-developed enough to make the ending fittingly tragic. The production is hampered by its obvious lack of resources but thankfully director Sung Tsun-Shou is able to do a lot with very little. The special effects-heavy finale is where Ghost Of the Mirror betrays its low-budget nature as much of it is puppetry and miniatures with sometimes very visible strings. Budgetary limitations notwithstanding Ghost Of the Mirror is a charming little movie that has been relegated to obscurity despite Brigitte Lin’s later international stardom.

    It might not have the rustic charm of The Enchanting Shadow (1960) or the mad frenetic energy, the slapstick comedy and the oh so bittersweet romance of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) yet Ghost Of the Mirror is perfectly capable of holding its own. There are obviously superior, and better realized, examples of the form but Ghost Of the Mirror has much of the same creaky, rickety charm as those poorly funded Mediterranean gothic horror genre pieces that arrived in the wake of American Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Ghost Of the Mirror draws from a different literary source and – mythology, but its objectives are largely the same. That Ghost Of the Mirror is overlooked in favor of its better known brethren is understandable. As serviceable and occassionally atmospheric as it it, it isn’t some lost classic or overlooked gem. As a historic curiosity it is interesting purely for being Brigitte Lin’s first major role. Other than that it’s a by-the-book Chinese ghost story that abstains from the overt craziness that came to define the post-A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) exercises in the genre. A little goes a long way and a little of Brigitte Lin in her earliest role of note is so much more than just that.