A prominent figure of Chinese mythology, the rotund and ugly but very powerful demon hunter Zhong Kui has surprisingly not had many film incarnations in the past decades. There was a female version of the character (played by Cheng Pei Pei, and thus not exactly rotund and ugly) in Ho Meng Hua’s The Lady Hermit in 1971, and Wu Ma directed and starred in a version of the myth in 1994’s The Chinese Ghostbuster, which transplanted the character as a fish out of water in 20th century Hong Kong. There has also been a few TV series, but Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is definitely the character’s first blockbuster incarnation, and given the film’s success during the 2015 Chinese New Year period, it’s unlikely to be the last. Directed by Peter Pau, who’s been more celebrated as a cinematographer – a position which he occupies on this film too – than as a director (his last directorial effort was the messy Michelle Yeoh vehicle The Touch in 2002), and Zhao Tianyu, who until now had been a director of much more low-key fare (like 2008’s culinary thriller Deadly Delicious), it incongruously yet somewhat inevitably casts a handsome – some would say pretty – star in the title role, where one would have logically yet somewhat unrealistically expected a more corpulent and rugged actor like Jiang Wu or Zhang Jinsheng.

Once every millenium, on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, it becomes possible for beings from the three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Hell to cross from one to another. This short period of time is an opportunity for change as much as it is a risk of chaos. The Jade Emperor (a Peter Pau cameo) thus allows master Zhang (Winston Chao), a lesser god, to go to Earth and protect the city of Hu, whose proximity to the gates of Hell puts it in danger at such a juncture. Master Zhang sends his disciple Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), a former scholar turned demon hunter, to Hell in order to steal the Dark Crystal, a powerful force that acts as a safeguard for the three Realms’ integrity. Zhong Kui succeeds, and the enraged Demon King sends Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) to Earth to get it back with the help of a group of other demons masquerading as an enthralling female entertainment troupe visiting the city of Hu. But when they arrive, Zhong Kui recognizes Snow Girl as Little Snow, a mysterious woman with whom he had a short but intense love story three years ago and who disappeared one day without a word, leaving him a heartbroken man. The following days will reveal true identities, hidden agendas and misunderstood gestures, while demons, men and gods battle for the Dark Crystal.

Like most, if not all, Chinese fantasy films in the past decade, Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (henceforward Zhong Kui) is a massive display of CGI work, limiting its ‘real’ components to actors, natural props and immediate surroundings. All the rest is made of variably convincing visual effects : the backgrounds are superb – especially in Hell – and the creature design is inspired, but the animation leaves a lot to be desired : the jerky and weightless movements of the various CGI creatures call to mind a nineties video game. It’s too bad then, that the film relies so much of CGI combat, with demons and gods fighting in muddled, protracted battles that make up their own rules as they go, much in the way of 2014’s bloated The Monkey King. It doesn’t help that the mythology on display is frustratingly vague, perhaps in an attempt to make the film easily digestible for non-Chinese audiences, but with the side effect that the stakes are not always clear : even the big threat that powers the final third of the film is conveyed through wordy but vague exposition, and the actual powers of the supernatural characters are never well defined.

Fortunately, Zhong Kui relies not only on CGI, but also on a talented cast. Chen Kun is a strange choice to play a portly, ugly demon hunter, and indeed his version of the character is actually slender and handsome despite sporting a craggy beard, but while the decision to cast him can obviously be chalked up the producers’ cold feet at the idea of a non-attractive lead, it must be said that Chen carries the film convincingly. His spirited, charismatic performance conveys the character’s playfulness as well as his inner struggles with aplomb and a few beastly flourishes that are unexpected and delightful. Not only is it a dual role in essence, as Chen Kun must portray Zhong Kui both as a young idealistic scholar and as the salty demon hunter he then becomes, but the actor also plays another pivotal role, which we won’t reveal. Chen Kun is clearly turning into one of the most versatile and entertaining stars in China right now.

He also shares fine chemistry with Li Bingbing, who’s not only achingly beautiful as the titular Snow Girl (Peter Pau is clearly in love with her) in Shirley Chan and Connie Auyeung’s exquisite costumes, but also magnetic and affecting in the same kind of dangerous but lovestruck demon role that Zhou Xun essayed in the Painted Skin films. Chen and Li make the love story the most compelling part of the film. Elsewhere, Winston Chao gets to subvert his often squeaky-clean image (he’s played revolutionary Chinese saint Sun Yat Sen more than a few times) and Jike Junyi cuts a fleeting but striking figure as a fellow demon. As icing on the CGI cake, Javier Navarrete’s score is massive and stunning, propelling every scene either with furious orchestral power or with impressive lyrical grace. Close your eyes and you might imagine a perfect film ; open them and it’s an uneven but enjoyable and lavish ride.

Long Story Short : Despite uneven and overbearing visual effects and muddled mythology, Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is anchored in compelling performances from Chen Kun and Li Bingbing, who along with Javier Navarrete’s stunning score, provide the film with enough power for it to pull through as an engaging origin story. ***

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