B&W, 1983, 82 mins. 48 secs. / 75 mins. 11 secs.
Directed by Tom Huckabee & Kent Smith
Starring Bill Paxton Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the seemingly endless number of ambitious low-budget debut films that sinks into obscurity, Taking Tiger Mountain is a fascinating blend of experimental art film, bizarre conceptual sci-fi, and startling sexuality. However, this one has managed to resurface and earn its place in the cinematic history books as the debut feature for a 19-year-old Bill Paxton, who was eager to get into filmmaking and jumped into this project with a short film director named Kent Smith. They ended up shooting tons of footage, mostly in a Welsh village and surrounding areas, but the aimless story of a young man wandering around and meeting a downbeat end proved to be impossible to assemble into any kind of final product (especially since they didn't shoot everything they wanted).
Later, director Tom Huckabee came in to shape it all into a coherent story, adding an opening setting the story in the future where our main character has been chosen by a group of militant scientists to commit an assassination after several sexual identity treatments and relentless convincing that his target is actually a homicidal tiger sent by God. Their interviews with the young man, Billy (Paxton), form the bulk of the soundtrack as he bares his innermost thoughts (apparently real stream-of-consciousness chats with the actor, partially conducted under hypnosis), with dream sequences alternating with his wandering throughout the town, one of four in the United Kingdom where prostitution has been legalized and the community is dedicated to sexual refinement.
Shot in striking Techniscope (primarily on shorts ends left over from Bob Fosse's Lenny!) with sound looped in after the fact, Taking Tiger Mountain isn't the most accessible film on the planet but easily merits a look as a genre-twisting exercise for those with a taste for the stronger side of experimental films. It's also a surprising vehicle for Paxton, who's in nearly every scene and delivers what easily surpasses Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke for the most exhibitionistic, explicit performance you'll see from one of the stars of Titanic.
Barely released in a handful of art theaters in 1983, Taking Tiger Mountain never hit home video in any format until its dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition from Vinegar Syndrome in 2019 (including a limited slipcover edition). In the interim, Huckabee assembled an alternate version entitled Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited, which features a slew of new digital titles and text cards (including "day" dividers to make the story more coherent), some snips here and there to speed up the pacing, and several other tweaks throughout including the addition of some new, minor visual flourishes. Both versions are present on this release, with the original theatrical cut given the full restoration treatment and serving as the default play option when you run the disc. Image quality on that one is superb with no visible damage, fine grain, and impressive detail, especially the many wide shots of the Welsh scenery and architecture. The revisited version comes with a disclaimer that the master was provided by Huckabee himself; as it was apparently prepared digitally in less than pristine condition, it's limited in resolution but looks watchable enough as a curiosity. However, the more elliptical and interesting theatrical cut is really the way to go for a first viewing.
Both versions are preceded by a brief director intro (18s), while Huckbaee appears for two featurettes, "Taking Over Tiger Mountain" (27m56s) and "Revisiting Tiger Mountain" (17m46s) in which he talks about the origins of the project in the early '70s, his first meeting with Paxton, the influence of everything from the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III to Federico Fellini, and the intention to shoot in Morocco that landed Smith and Paxton in jail for a few days. The portion dedicated to the new version chronicles how he revisited every shot and bit of sound with new eyes, with changes ranging from subtitle to dramatic. Finally, "Interviews with Welshmen" (16m25s) is an assemblage of B&W interview footage with Welsh locals (not just men) shot during the making of this film, with a heavy avant garde bent, frequently thick accents, and some background music that will definitely surprise a few listeners.