JADE DYNASTY (2019) review

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After an eight-year hiatus from directing – an interval in which he only choreographed one film (Bollywood superhero film Krrish 3) and contributed to Jack Ma’s all-star ego-stroking short film On that Night… While we Dream – Ching Siu Tung is back with an adaptation of Mainland author Xiao Ding’s popular fantasy novel Zhu Xian. Already adapted into a TV series (The Legend of Chusen, starring Li Yifeng and Zhao Liying), it’s an eight-part saga and Jade Dynasty has both a cliffhanger ending and an original Mandarin title, 诛仙I, that confidently bears the number one; the film’s solid success (close to 60 million dollars) means said confidence may not have been misplaced.

Set in Ancient China, it follows Zhang Xiaofan (Sean Xiao), whose parents and entire village were massacred by the mysterious Demon King. Adopted into the Qingyun sect and befriended there by Tian Ling’er (Tang Yixin), whom he secretly loves, he has learned martial arts for ten years but has shown little talent for it. So when a tournament is organized between local martial arts sects, no one expects him to rank high. Yet as a mysterious pearl given to him ten years ago by an old master (Xiong Xin Xin) comes in contact with his blood, it turns into the Fire Stick, a powerful weapon that follows him around, serves only him, and makes him victorious in any fight, even against Lu Xueqi (Li Qin) the tournament’s clear favorite, who harbors secrets of her own. But the weapon is coveted by the Demon King, who sends Biyao (Meng Meiqi) to retrieve it. But soon Biyao starts falling in love with Xiaofan, and all hell threatens to break loose.

If you’ve read – and, more impressively, remember – more than one of our reviews of Chinese fantasy epics, you’ll know we have come to to identify an unholy trinity of flawss in Chinese fantasy: unruly narratives, abstruse stakes and uneven visuals. Jade Dynasty fares rather well in this regard. The plot, while relentlessly manufacturing bland and chemistry-free love entanglements, has a welcome self-contained and streamlined quality to it, where so many other Chinese fantasy epics keep bombarding the audience with new characters. After succinctly yet efficiently introducing the main characters and what drives them, it espouses a tournament structure during which secrets start unraveling, then launches into a massive action finale. And though there are mild comic interludes (a mischievous monkey is either a marvel of CGI or truly excellent animal training), there are no jarring tonal shifts. Visually, it’s often a feast for the eyes. CGI is omnipresent of course, but most of the time it has a painterly, evocative quality to it, seamlessly blending with Chan Wai Nin’s beautiful cinematography (all earthy pastels, a pleasant paradox) and Lau Man Hung’s elegantly pared-down art direction. Wan Pin Chu’s score is superb and old-fashioned.

The one pitfall Jade Dynasty doesn’t avoid is the abstruse stakes. Antagonists are conjured out of a world whose geography and power dynamics are very ill-defined, and individual powers seem to be re-defined at every scene, which makes tension and suspense rather non-existent. And while Ching Siu Tung’s previous film, the middling The Sorcerer and the White Snake, was often an eyesore but was powered by a strong cast, Jade Dynasty reverses that equation, with the aforementioned strong visuals but a lightweight cast. Sean Xiao is relentlessly wide-eyed and whiny, and rather unconvincing when the script requires him to go dark. Tang Yixin is cutesy, while Meng Meiqi’s expresses her character’s tragic inner conflicts with an irate teenager’s sulky pout. Among the leads, only Li Qin displays any measure of gravitas, with a stern and steely turn. The supporting cast, however, is full of legendary faces whose effortless charisma only serves to underline the young leads’ inadequacy: David Chiang, Cecilia Yip, Leung Kar Yan, Norman Tsui and Xiong Xin Xin play wise martial arts masters whose story one would much rather follow. Qiu Xinzhi and Vicky Chen also bring considerably warmth to their roles as Xiaofan’s masters and surrogate parents.

In terms of spectacle, the first hour is full of weightless fights that sometimes resuscitate Ching’s classic ‘fabric as weapon’ style of the early nineties – except here the whirling fabric is mostly CGI, making the effect less charming, while the young leads’ lack of martial arts skill is compensated with quick cuts and a lot of flailing arms. Yet Jade Dynasty does offer a few flashes of the old Ching Siu Tung magic, especially in the insane finale (mild spoilers here, if you want the insanity wholly unspoiled, skip to ‘Long Story Short’): the Demon King emerges from hell (at first in the shape of a dark chariot), flanked by grotesque and deadly goons, including a double-sword wielding pig creature, a zombie skating on deadly rotating shields, an empty shell of a masked warrior that swallows its opponents and uses their arms as weapons, and an old puppeteer who uses rope and a devilish doll to control its adversaries into fighting one another.

Whole formations of martial arts disciples fight back by uniting into giant human flying guillotine, while David Chiang et al. make a display of power, all under the placid gaze of a dog, and the aforementioned monkey. It’s an all-too-short but rather gloriously demented set piece, and a reminder that while praise for such fantasy classics as A Chinese Ghost Story, the Swordsman trilogy or The Heroic Trio has mostly been given to Tsui Hark (for the two former) and Johnnie To (for the latter), with Ching sometimes considered more of a yes-man to their artistic vision, he’s actually a vital force, and one that’s been missed. Now if only he could direct a new down-and-dirty wu xia pian like his masterpiece, Duel to the Death.

Long Story Short: Jade Dynasty is visually-pleasing but weightless fantasy fluff, until it’s jolted into life by an insane finale. ***

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. kami

     /  April 10, 2020

    3 points for that uninspired bore-fest? Honestly, I had much more fun with Renny Harlin’s big-budget-trash-extravaganza Legend Of the Ancient Sword.

    Reply
    • Ah but Legend Of the Ancient Sword had most of what I don’t like in current Chinese fantasy.

      Reply
  2. To be fair, this is only part one of the story, so the naive, slightly bumbling character played by Xiao Zhan is intentional, with the emotional growth part of the story arc yet to come (provided part two is filmed, that is). As for the monkey, it’s real, as I’ve seen in BTS footage.

    Reply
    • Ah yes, I guessed that with so many parts to the novel, the character’s arc must be wide, but still I found that Xiao played it a bit too broad. The monkey on the other hand, steals the show!

      Reply

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