In the midst of North-east China’s snow covered trees and mountains platoon 203 is fighting against small gangs of bandits who rob and pillage rural villages. When entering the small village Leather Creek they find out about a nest of bandits living on Tiger Mountain, where bandit chieftain The Hawk (座山雕/三爷) is leading a gang of thousand. The obliteration of this group of bandits quickly becomes the sole objective for platoon 203.
A majority of the Chinese audience are already familiar with the story of The Taking of Tiger Mountain. The film which is based on the book Tracks in the Snow (林海雪原) by Qu Bo (曲波) came out in 1957 and was only three years later made in to a feature film by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) film studio August First Film Studio. The story was later made into a revolutionary opera (样板戏) during the film scarce period of the Cultural Revolution. Interesting fact, Tsui Harks film has a side story where the grandson of a survivor from Leather Creek village watches the revolutionary opera version on his way back to China where he’s gonna celebrate the Spring Festival, echoing the CCTVs New Years Gala from the same year where revolutionary operas also was included in the program.
Opera or no opera, The Taking of Tiger Mountain still emanate a reverence for Chinese history, especially red history (history circulating around the Chinese Communist Party). The soldiers of platoon 203 are heirs and caretakers of a PLA soldier tradition originating from soldiers like Zhang Side (张思德), embodying notions of self sacrifice and altruism while the bandits in the film live in overflow and show a complete disregard for human empathy. The mores of bandits and soldiers in the film leaves no space for narrating a differentiated story where actions of good and bad becomes ambiguous. A story more similar to Lu Chuans City of Life and Death(南京！南京, 2009) would be welcome, a story which gives both sides of the fighting forces a face and a voice.
Distancing himself from realistic action scenes Tsui Hark focuses more on stylistic action where 3D-effect plays the main part and the actors are merely prop. Abandoning a balanced depiction of cruel human nature during war time for stylistic action, suffering becomes a concept which only falls upon the PLA soldiers and the villagers. The camera is at most of the time static and the editing rapid, far from the Kaminskian-camera style we could see in Feng Xiaogangs Assembly (集结号, 2007). A more interesting choice in mise-en-scené is the costumes. The soldiers are dressed in traditional yellow army uniforms while the bandits are dressed in old nazi-uniforms, big fur coats and other costumes that would’ve fitted a cabaret wardrobe. Bandit chieftain The Hawk looks like Heihachi from Tekken and the protagonist Yang Zirong (杨子荣) has a lavish amount of make-up giving him a operatic quality.
In short, The Taking of Tiger Mountain have a good narrative pace but the story is overshadowed by the one-sided representation of different groups of people. Furthermore, the film makes it its mission to establish the PLA as one in the family of the Chinese nation longing for a time when the PLA soldiers was seen as an: “…Army of country boys who were strictly self-disciplined, polite and helpful…” (Fairbank, China: A New History, p.348). This film might also be the only film I’ve ever seen where the alternative ending is included shortly after the “other” ending, a worthy ending for a film where the abundance of action sequences was already more than enough.