MOJIN: THE WORM VALLEY (2018) review

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A new term should be coined for films like Mojin: The Worm Valley. Based on Tianxia Bachang’s 2006 best-selling series of eight novels, Ghost Blows Out the Light, it thus exists in the same universe and follows the same characters as Lu Chuan’s Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe and Wuershan’s Mojin: The Lost Legend. Yet, being from the same studio as the latter film, it is not a rival adaptation per se. And it’s neither a sequel nor a prequel, as its events and depictions of characters do not fit with The Lost Legend‘s narrative. And it doesn’t seem to be a reboot, as there was word not so long ago of a Mojin Returns, with Chen Kun set to return to the lead. And while Wuershan’s film was a sizable hit – still the 12th highest-grossing Chinese film of all-time – The Worm Valley inexplicably scales things down both in terms of scope and in terms of cast, with Cheng Taishen the only recognizable face in the cast, let alone anyone of the A-list stature of Chen Kun, Shu Qi or Huang Bo. And as Fei Xing’s film looks set, after a few days on Chinese screen, to gross but a tiny fraction of The Lost Legend‘s box-office take, the whole thing appears quite a head-scratching way of managing a successful IP on the part of backers Enlight and Huayi.

And so we follow tomb raiders Hu Bayi (Cai Heng, heretofore a TV supporting actor), Shirley Yang (Gu Xuan, who played one of the heroic prostitutes in Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War), Wang Fatzi (Yu Heng, also off mostly TV roles), Gold Tooth (Marc Ma, who played third or fourth fiddle in many a Chinese blockbuster), Linglong (Chen Yusi, a relative newcomer) and Professor Sun (Cheng Taishen), who venture into the dangerous Hidden Dragon Mountain to locate the mythical Mu Chen orb, an magical artifact that would allow them to lift a curse cast on them in a previous adventure, that dooms them to die before forty.

Though the aforementioned puzzling reshuffling of the narrative and artistic cards didn’t quite bode well for The Worm Valley, there was at least the promise of Fei Xing’s return to the director’s chair, five years after his excellent courtroom drama Silent Witness (itself only his second film after the intriguing The Man behind the Courtyard House). Unfortunately, none of his deft sense of storytelling is carried over to The Worm Valley: after a rushed opening that never really introduces the characters properly – as if this was indeed a sequel, or a mid-season episode of a TV series – and with the stakes set up in a shockingly perfunctory manner (a quick catch-up on previous adventures never witnessed in any other film), the heroes venture into the mountain, and the film quickly becomes a bland and repetitive succession of confrontations with various creatures: carnivorous fish open the dance, and then there’s a giant crab, giant scorpions, a giant snake… Each confrontation unfolds in the exact same way, with the tomb raiders swirling around the creatures, shooting arrows or explosives or jumping and slashing away with machetes. The creatures a passably rendered, but the lack of creativity in those set pieces makes them a chore to get through, especially as none of the characters are fleshed out in the least beyond stock romantic feelings.

It doesn’t help that the film is desperately low on charisma. As Hu Bayi, Cai Heng follows in the footsteps of A-listers Mark Chao and Chen Kun – not to mention Zhang Hanyu, set to take up the role in yet another adaptation coming soon – and he’s almost non-existent on screen. Gu Xuan has more presence and is adequate, but then again she’s not in the same league as previous Shirleys Yao Chen and Shu Qi. Marc Ma, Yu Heng and Chen Yusi make no impression whatsoever. And it’s not about fame: that these actors are relative unknowns is not the issue. The problem is that with the exception of Gu Xuan and good old Cheng Taishen, they don’t have the presence required to inhabit roles that the script makes close to no attempt at fleshing out. A cliffhanger ending teases a direct sequel, already being shot with the same cast and crew, under the title Mojin: The Dragon Ridge. How ironic that the latest, blandest and least successful film based on this source material, is the quickest one to get a sequel.

Long Story Short: Bland, repetitive and desperately low on charisma. *

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