THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS: BETWEEN YIN AND YANG (2019) review

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In Yan Jia’s The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang, Jackie Chan plays an imaginary version of Pu Songling, the late 16th-century, early 17th-century author of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio – a collection of supernatural stories on which films the A Chinese Ghost Story or the Painted Skin franchise are more or less loosely based. This Pu is a writer too (and one eager to peddle his stories), but he’s also an actual demon hunter who operates from a mountain-top house, assisted by goblins Farty, Happy and Thousand Hands. While helping a hapless sheriff’s assistant (Lin Bohong) catch a jewel thief who’s actually a pig demon, Pu comes across Nie Xiaoqian (Elane Zhong), a demon who along with her sister Jing Yao (Lin Peng) feeds on the souls of young women, after promising them eternal beauty. Also on Nie Xiaoqian’s trail is Yan Chixia (Ethan Juan), a wandering demon hunter who’s none other than her former lover.

Reimagining a famous author as the main character of one of their stories is not a new idea – it’s been applied to H. P. Lovecraft or Agatha Christie, among others – but it’s always an amusing one. Nie Xiaoqian, Elane Zhong’s character, is actually the one made famous by Joey Wong (then later taken up by Liu Yifei) in the A Chinese Ghost Story franchise, and there’s probably quite a few Pu Songling references that flew over this writer’s head in the film. In the role, Jackie Chan – in his first foray into fantasy since 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom – is his charismatic, charming self, obviously relishing this return to playfulness after his intense turn in The Foreigner and po-faced one in Bleeding Steel. The film itself obviously aims for the mix of dark humour and cute monsters that propelled the Monster Hunt and Journey to the West franchises to record success, but it floundered at the box-office during Chinese New Year (at least by Jackie Chan’s lofty success standards).

Indeed, in presenting itself as a Pu Songling narrative mish-mash, The Knight of Shadows brings only familiar elements to the table: after all, Pu’s stories have been adapted a lot for the big or small screen. Visually, it’s often marvelously inspired, probably more so than the afore-mentioned two successful franchises, but constantly brought down by unpolished CGI: this includes a protracted finale in an alternate dimension, an interstellar space full of eerie floating pagodas that’s quite haunting in theory, but marred by visual effects that look unfinished. For long stretches, the characters are replaced by weightless, elastic CGI versions of themselves that are utterly unconvincing. Still, two more grounded moments are absolute delights: a fight in a mirror demon’s lair where the upper and lower halves of Jackie Chan’s body are separated and fight independently, and later a callback to his now seemingly extinct action-comedy style, where he disposes of his attackers with chairs.

Chan disappears for a while in favor of the doomed love story between Ethan Juan’s demon hunter and Elane Zhong’s demon, a passable tragedy adequately played out by the two actors. Yet it’s hard to be moved by their romantic plight when there’s a small demon going around farting green farts in the face of its opponents. And Lin Peng, as a sultry mirror demon, steals whatever scenes she’s in – a habit of hers in Jackie Chan films after Little Big Soldier and Dragon BladeZhao Zhao’s score and Choi Yeong-hwan’s cinematography are lavish, while Jiu Cheng’s art direction is beautiful and inventive. Such first-rate technical contributions deserved a better script.

Long Story Short: Visually lavish and inventive, and carried by Jackie Chan’s inextinguishable’s charisma, The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang is unfortunately weighed down by childish humour, unpolished CGI and a stock tragic love story. **1/2

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