American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, when the action cinema of Hong Kong was at its artistic and commercial peak throughout the world, arguably the key figure in their film industry was the hugely prolific Tsui Hark. As a producer, director and/or writer (and usually in some combination of the three), he was involved with many of the key cinematic works of this period—"Peking Opera Blues," the "A Better Tomorrow" trilogy, "The Killer," "Dragon Inn," "A Chinese Ghost Story" and the jaw-dropping "Time and Tide" to name just a few. FIlled with breathtaking stunts, exquisitely choreographed, action set-pieces and weirdo humor, the films that he was involved in stood out amidst the flood of titles that emerged during that time. So distinctive was his work that during the brief period of time when he departed Hong Kong for America to direct a couple of Jean-Claude Van Damme epics (a ritual that many of the major HK players took part in at the time), the resulting films, "Double Team" and "Knock Off" were actually kind of entertaining in a cheerfully insane way.
In recent years, he has slowed down his output a bit—he now averages maybe one movie a year when he used to crank out two or three—but as his latest work, "The Taking of Tiger Mountain," demonstrates, he has not lost any of his filmmaking fever. While the end result may be admittedly more uneven in spots than his best-known works, this lavish period piece contains enough thrills, spills and moments of cinematic grace that not only manage to push it through the rough spots but allow it to put most American action films of recent vintage to shame.
The story takes place in northwest China in the winter of 1946, a period in which civil war raged throughout the land between marauding gangs of bandits and the People's Liberation Army, who were charged with bringing them down. The most feared of all the bandits is Lord Hawk (Tony Leung), who commands an army of thousands from his fortress atop Tiger Mountain, is armed to the teeth with weaponry that was left behind when the Japanese fled and has been laying waste to any village in the area unlucky enough to get in their way. Opposing Hawk is PLA Unit 203, a rag-tag group of perhaps 30 soldiers serving under the idealistic Jianbo (Kenny Lin).
Outgunned, outmanned and with time running short, Unit 203 launches a desperate final bid to defeat Hawk and his men by sending one of their men, Zirong Yang (Hanyu Zhang), to infiltrate Hawk's stronghold by posing as a fellow bandit so that he can surreptitiously smuggle out information regarding the stronghold that the others can use to create a plan of attack. Although Zirong is quickly taken into Hawk's confidence, some of the other bandits, especially Second Brother (Yu Xing), are suspicious of the newcomer and his motives, and he is in constant danger of being found out. Eventually, Hawk decides to launch a surprise attack on Unit 203 but the smaller group manages to prevails despite being outnumbered, which paradoxically only adds to the suspicion regarding Zirong. Just before Hawk can launch an unexpected second attack, Unit 203 decides to attack Tiger Mountain themselves during a New Year's Eve celebration in a last-ditch effort to bring Hawk down.