MONSTER RUN (2020) review

p2617622226After co-directing Full Strike with Derek Kwok, and being visual effects supervisor on most of his other films, Henry Wong graduates to solo director (with Kwok still present as a producer) for Monster Run, the latest high-profile Chinese film to bypass theaters altogether in these times of pandemic. It follows Ji Mo (Jessie Li), a young woman who spent the past few years in a mental hospital to treat her diagnosed paranoid personality disorder: as a child, she would have visions of monsters. Having found a job in a convenience store, she’s hoping for an ordinary life and copes with the visions of monster, which haven’t subsided. Until one day, Meng (Shawn Yue) barges in the store with his partner Paper (a living piece of paper voiced by Qiao Shan) and hunts down a monster right in front of her. It turns out the monsters are real: they’re from an alternate dimension, and Meng’s mission is to stop them from coming into this world. Soon, a bond forms between the monter hunter and the young clairvoyant, but the sinister Lotus (Kara Hui), powerful guardian of the frontier between the two dimensions, has nefarious plans for Ji Mo…

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DOUBLE WORLD (2020) short review

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One of the higher-profile Chinese productions to take the decision to skip theaters in the time of COVID-19 in favor of an online release (in this case, Iqiyi in the east and Netflix in the west), Teddy Chan’s Double World is an adaptation of the popular MMORPG Zhengtu. In a fantasy China divided in two warring states, Southern Zhao and Northern Yan, all Southern Zhao clans are called upon to send three of their best fighters to a massive martial contest whose winner will become General-in-Chief of the state. Among the contestants are an orphan with a mysterious past (Henry Lau), and a deserter (Peter Ho) with a mysterious past AND a vengeful agenda. This wildly uneven fantasy epic is narratively so shallow and mechanical it’s hard to care about anything that unfolds onscreen, despite the charismatic presence of people like Peter Ho (why this man isn’t an international star yet, we don’t know) and Jiang Luxia (making the most of yet another semi-feral short-haired woman-fighter role). Visually, there’s an interestingly elaborate set for the arena where the contest unfolds, beautiful traps and weaponry and rather well-animated dragons and scorpions, but also some eye-gouging green-screen work, the kind in which actors’ faces are still bathed in a sickly greenish hue even long after post-production work has been completed. The film’s main redeeming quality, outside of Ho’s intense, brooding presence, is some brutal, bloody and inventive action directing by the great Tung Wei. **1/2

TAOIST MASTER (aka MASTER ZHANG) (2020) short review

p2605809645In Wu Yingxiang’s Taoist Master, the ever-underrated Fan Siu Wong plays Zhang Taoling, the founder of Taoism (or at least its first organized form), as he goes up against Gu Ma (Su Mao), an evil cult leader who’s kidnapping young men (including Zhang’s disciple) to perform a ritual that could extend his life by centuries. Helping Zhang are huntswoman Hong Ying ( Zhang Dong) and Wu Xian (Yue Dongfeng), a former member of Gu Ma’s cult. This is a very enjoyable little fantasy adventure that manages, despite a modest budget, to avoid most of the pitfalls big-budget Chinese fantasy films often succumb to. It is crisply-paced, with a plot that doesn’t hold many surprises, nor much depth, but is focused and never falls into abstruse randomness. The solid production design uses ornate costumes and shadow to its advantage to evoke a lot without showing much. Fan Siu Wong is excellent as ever, bringing gravitas and understated badassness to his role, and ably flanked by the promising Zhang Dong who shines especially in action scenes. The latter are intricately-choreographed, making very measured use of CGI and wires, and captured in quick successions of wild camera moves (though never devolving into shaky cam or jumble-cutting) that make them frantic and impactful without forsaking legibility. Where so many Chinese fantasy films’ reach still exceed their grasp (big-budget though they may be), Taoist Master succeeds by knowing its strengths and limitations and confidently toeing the line between them. ***

THE ENCHANTING PHANTOM (aka A CHINESE GHOST STORY: HUMAN LOVE) (2020) review

p2597931214After bringing back Vincent Zhao’s incarnation of Wong Fei Hung – albeit on the small screens – with The Unity of Heroes, and scripting Detective Dee: Ghost Soldiers (starring Kristy Yang as Empress Wu Zetian), one of the more high-profile and better-rated of the countless straight-to-VOD Detective Dee films, director Lin Zhenzhao tackles another beloved Hong Kong franchise with The Enchanting Phantom, a remake of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung’s classic A Chinese Ghost Story (itself based on a Pu Songling story). Apparently at first destined for at least a modest theatrical release, the Covid-19 pandemic in the end sent it straight to VOD. And so we once again follow naïve scholar Ning Caichen (Chen Xingxu), who falls in love with beautiful demon Nie Xiaoqian (Eleanor Lee), and attempts to free her from the clutches of her dark master, hermaphroditic tree demon Lao Lao (Norman Tsui), with the help of Taoist demon hunter Yan Chixia (Yuen Wah). (more…)

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.

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THE MYSTERY OF DRAGON SEAL (aka THE IRON MASK) (2019) review

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Who could have imagined that two of the most iconic movie stars in the world, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, would one day share the screen not in a Hollywood buddy movie, but in a Russian-Chinese fantasy swashbuckling adventure vaguely derived from Nikolai Gogol, in which Arnie would play a British warden, and the two would have a swordfight? Now we want to see Sylvester Stallone and Chow Yun Fat arm-wrestle in a Polish-Vietnamese western indirectly adapted from Victor Hugo. Anyway, Oleg Stepchenko’s The Mystery of Dragon Seal is the sequel to Viy, a Russian fantasy adventure – Gogol-derived, as aforementioned – starring Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance, that found healthy international ancillary success after becoming the third highest-grossing Russian film in Russia in 2014. Conceived to work as a stand-alone film – thanks to a recapitulation of the previous episode – and geared towards the China market, this sequel has been a flop both there and in Russia.

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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.

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KUNG FU MONSTER (2018) review

 When a foreign kingdom gifts a rare monster to the Ming Emperor, Ocean (Louis Koo) is put in charge of taming it, but evil eunuch Crane (Alex Fong) has nefarious plans for it. Having grown attached to the beast, and having named it Lucky, Ocean decides to free it, thus becoming a hunted outlaw in the process. When he’s captured by Crane’s second-in-command (Wu Yue), his lover Bingbing (Hayden Kuo) hatches a plan to rescue him, enlisting under false pretenses a couple of hapless swordsmen (Zhou Dongyu and Cheney Chen), two even more hapless bandits (Pan Binlong and Kong Liangshun), a mysterious vagrant (Bao Bei’er), and more.

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LEGEND OF THE ANCIENT SWORD (2018) review

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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.

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DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS (2018) review

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Tsui Hark’s second prequel to his career-resurrecting hit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), picks up right where there previous installment, Rise of the Sea Dragon, left off: Tang Emperor Gaozong entrusting Di Renjie (Mark Chao) with the Dragon-taming mace, a powerful weapon made of stardust steel and a symbol of his promotion to the highest level of responsibility towards the throne. But Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the Emperor’s chief consort and co-ruler of the Chinese empire, views this promotion as a critical mistake, and she orders Yuchi Zhenjin (William Feng), the head of the Justice Department and Di Renjie’s sworn brother after the events of the previous film, to recover the mace. Torn between brotherly loyalty and imperial duty, and highly suspicious of the shady quartet of Taoist fighters the Empress assigned to assist him, Yuchi nevertheless obeys orders. Yet Di Renjie is always one step ahead, and Wu Zetian – councelled by a mysterious faceless lord – resorts to framing him for an assassination attempt on a member of the imperial family. Things are further complicated by the appearance at the imperial court of a giant, deadly golden dragon.

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