For many years Taking Tiger Mountain was considered a quasi-lost film. In reality, after its very small initial theatrical and even smaller festival run, interest in the film faded. It did gain a cult following through poor-quality bootlegs circulating on the Internet, but never received any kind of home video release. But thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, we now have this truly unique cult oddity with Bill Paxton in his debut performance—the production of Taking Tiger Mountain started all the way back in 1974—although released well after he had appeared in numerous films.
When the film’s original and eventually co-director Kent Smith embarked on his almost decade-long odyssey of production, it was essentially a film based on the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. Smith had the incredibly dumb idea to not record any sound because, you know, the Italian greats didn’t. Initially it was supposed to be shot in Tangiers, but because they didn’t bribe the government in advance, they ended up shooting the film in a small village in Wales. It languished in post-production hell till a young filmmaker, Tom Huckabee, got ahold of the footage and decided to take it into a far more extreme and interesting direction.
The finished film is a surrealistic science-fiction assassination thriller that is loosely inspired by William S. Burroughs’ Blade Runner (A Movie) novella, and the director even got permission from Uncle Bill to use excerpts from the text. When Huckabee met Burroughs to show him footage and get him to finally sign off on the film, Huckabee picked up a magazine that had a piece on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner on the front cover, Burroughs’s manager/caregiver/ex-lover and eventually the literary executor of his estate, James Grauerholz, was aware of the film’s name because Burroughs received a small amount for the rights to the title.
Huckabee also infused it with Valerie Solanas’s extreme militant feminism in the guise of the SCUM group (Solanas’s most famous work was The SCUM Manifesto), which has experimented on Bill Paxton’s World War III draft-dodging Billy Hampton through brainwashing, psychedelic drugs including LSD and DMT, and two sex changes (male to female and back), and is now sending him to Wales to assassinate the Welsh Minister of Prostitution as in The Manchurian Candidate. And that’s just the first 10 minutes or so!
The rest of the film is mainly just Billy wandering around Wales on what he perceives to be some sex-romp vacation. Taking Tiger Mountain is an extraordinary example of how a filmmaker can bring something to pre-existing footage and completely change the meaning of the images. He did shoot some more footage, primarily the beginning of the brainwashing, but the main chunk was made up of film was already there. It’s similar to what Roger Corman would do with a foreign sci-fi film—use the existing footage as the basis, re-dub the dialogue, and add and subtract footage—but this is a much more radical take on that technique.
It’s not perfect by any stretch, nor could it be given the nature of the project. However, it runs in its original cut at around the 80-minute mark, so moves along at a decent clip. Tom Huckabee has also gone back and edited the film into a 75-minute cut dubbed Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited, which has an additional newly filmed scene at the end, and some new minor visual and sound effects. Of the two cuts, I do think the original cut works better. Taking Tiger Mountain is ripe for discovery and is actually the very first William S. Burroughs adaptation outside of excerpts of his work that were used in the ’60s cut-up films he did with English director Antony Balch, whose dream project was a Naked Lunch adaptation with Mick Jagger.
The disc from Vinegar Syndrome includes both versions of the film and interviews with Tom Huckabee related to both cuts. A short film from Kent Smith is included that features the actor who plays the Welsh Minister of Prostitution. The wonderful release is finished off with booklet from Heather Drain.