It’s been a brutal year for Chinese fantasy on the big screen. Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 underperformed compared to the previous installments in the franchise, Hasi Chaolu’s fantasy take on Genghis Khan went unnoticed despite a starry cast and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s artistic input, Zhang Peng’s Asura was retrieved from theaters a mere three days after opening to dismal box-office numbers, and now Renny Harlin’s Legend of the Ancient Sword has failed to even reach the 2 million-dollar mark, despite a prime launching date during Chinese national holidays. This puts extra pressure on Wuershan’s now-shooting fantasy trilogy Gods, a massive undertaking whose commercial potential isn’t being solidified at the moment.

Backed, like Asura, by Alibaba Pictures (some people must be clearing their desk even as I write), Legend of the Ancient Sword is based on the popular video game of the same title, and follows Yue Wuyi (Wang Leehom), a young adventurer whose master, Xie Yi (Archie Kao), disappeared mysteriously years ago. Also on the trail of the vanished master are Xia Yize (Godfrey Gao), a mysterious swordsman of royal blood, and Wen Renyu (Victoria Song), a warrioress. Guided by a robot built by Xie Yi in his own image, the three initially reluctant companions are led to Ruan (Karena Ng), a young woman trapped in a magical map, and whose very essence may be the key to defeating Shen Ye (Julian Cheung), the grand priest grand priest of a heavenly tribe threatening the people of Earth.

The above synopsis is our humble attempt at streamlining the overbearing clutter of fantasy tropes that is the plot of Legend of the Ancient Sword. Now is a good time to mention what we call the unholy trinity of Chinese fantasy flaws, as Renny Harlin’s film is a textbook example. First, a rushed, unruly narrative that favors heavy exposition over any sort of emotional involvement; the tenets of this fantasy world, and reams of mythological backstory are dropped on the spectator, while the characters get one feature each – goofy, brooding, cute… Second, abstruse stakes; the search for a mysteriously vanished master is quickly sidelined in favor of a quest to defeat a bad guy (played with maximum blandness by Julian Cheung) whose goals are so ill-defined and shifting, that the film has to spring an entirely new villain on the audience in the final fifteen minutes, just so the finale can include an actual antagonist. And third, visuals that are here not just uneven as in many Chinese fantasy films, but downright mediocre; costumes vary between routine, and embarrassing cosplay (poor Victoria Song), physical sets are serviceable but all blend in together after a while, CGI creatures are shoddy, while CGI backgrounds have the feel of late-nineties screensavers.

A few steampunk robots and ships are a nice touch, but anthropomorphized pandas, elephants and rats are an eyesore and a weird way to attract small kids, who otherwise might be disturbed by all the stabbing and slashing on display (with Qin Pengfei’s action design quite unremarkable). It doesn’t help that the cast can’t muster more than a thimbleful of charisma: Wang Leehom is starting to be too old to play young goofy heroes, Victoria Song is striking but one-note fierce, Godfrey Gao just stands there frowning, while Karena Ng is upstaged by her admittedly flawless midriff. Oh and Liu Yan spends the whole film comatose, tied to a tree. We sympathize.

Long Story Short: Several steps backwards for Chinese big screen fantasy, Legend of the Ancient Sword is narratively uninvolving, visually mediocre, and desperately low on sweep and charisma. *

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