MURAL (2011) review

After the huge success that was Painted Skin in 2008, Gordon Chan was back in 2011 with another fantasy film, which was financially almost as successful as his 2008 effort, though critically much less lauded. Deng Chao stars as Zhu, a scholar on his way to the capital with his servant Hou Xia (Bao Bei’er), to pass an exam. After an altercation with a robber, Meng Longtan (Collin Chou), they end up in a Taoist temple where they are welcomed by an affable monk (Eric Tsang). There, Zhu notices a mural depicting beautiful women in a heavenly landscape. When one of the beauties (Zheng Shuang) materializes in front of him, he follows her through a portal that leads to the heavenly landscape of the mural, which is peopled only with beautiful women, and ruled by a ruthless queen (Ni Yan), her trusted second-in-command Shaoyao (Betty Sun) and a mysterious golden warrior (Andy On). Soon, Hou Xia and Meng Longtan and dragged into this world as well, but Zhu has only one goal: to rescue Mudan, the woman who led him to this world and who has been cast to hell by the queen for it.

The main problem with Mural is that it takes a long while to establish its premise, and after that’s done, there isn’t much of plot, but rather a series of episodes that don’t exactly set the pulse racing. Gordon Chan and his crew are content letting the film bask in its pastel-hued sets and costumes, with little attention given to logic (or at least an inner logic to this fantasy world), or compelling storytelling. But if anything Mural is the very definition of eye candy: though the landscapes and backdrops are mainly hasty, slapdash cgi, the costumes and interiors are splendid, and there are more drop-dead gorgeous actresses in this film than in the rest of 2011’s films put together. Some of them are pretty good actresses, too. Zheng Shuang is a revelation as the fragile Mudan, her child-like grace counter-balanced by quiet inner strength, and Yan Ni does some good scenery-chewing as the queen. But the star here is Betty Sun, who since her revelatory turn as Jet Li’s love interest in Fearless has blossomed not only into an amazingly beautiful woman, but also an impressive actress. Indeed, her performance almost belongs in another, better film, most notably in a final scene where she commands the screen in a heart-breaking monologue. Her chemistry with the ever-reliable Deng Chao (they’re an item in real life) is interesting and provides the film with a welcome emotional backbone of unspoken (and sometimes unrequited) love.

The film makes a few half-hearted, half-assed attempts at adventure, but severely underemploys its two action stars, Collin Chou and Andy On. Chou gets to at least show a lighter side to his talents, in an enjoyable and endearing performance that makes you wish he had more to do within the film, and that he would be given juicier roles in his career. On, another underrated actor, has only a tiny romantic subplot that leads nowhere but very well could have. In the end, that epitomizes the film’s problem pretty well: it is half-baked, it seems to have been rushed through production and could have been much more than it is, even if what it is is rather entertaining.

Long Story Short: Mural is nice to look at and well-acted, but its non-sensical plot and slapdash direction make it half the film it could have been. **1/2

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