DYNASTY WARRIORS (2021) review

An adaptation of the Japanese hack-and-slash video game of the same title that has spanned 24 years and 15 consoles, Roy Chow’s Dynasty Warriors was shot in 2017 but dragged its feet through post-production for 4 years due to financial issues, finally landing with a thud at the Chinese box-office, with an online release following less than a week later. Like the video game, it follows the epic events of Luo Guanzhong’s fundamental novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms while infusing it with fantasy tropes: no mythical creatures, but near-superhuman heroes wielding weapons infused with supernatural energy. And so the future lords and generals of the Three Kingdoms era: Liu Bei (Tony Yang), Guan Yu (Han Geng), Zhang Fei (Justin Cheung), and their future enemy Cao Cao (Wang Kai), as they lead the resistance against imperial usurper Dong Zhuo (Lam Suet) and his undefeated general, Lv Bu (Louis Koo).

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A WRITER’S ODYSSEY (2021) review

The third most successful film of Chinese New Year 2021, albeit a wide margin behind the first two, Lu Yang’s A Writer’s Odyssey (also known as Assassins in Red) follows Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) a shell of a man desperately looking for his daughter, who was kidnapped six years before. One day, he’s approached by Tu Ling (Yang Mi), the mysterious right-hand woman of tech magnate Li Mu (Yu Hewei). Tu knows everything about Guan: not only his life’s tragedy, but also his almost paranormal abilities – to throw very precisely at impossible angles, to not feel pain… She tells him she has found the trace of his now teenage daughter, and can help him be reunited with her, if and only if he assassinates Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian), the author of Godslayer, a fantasy novel being serialized on the net, and whose plot turns seem to have a direct effect on Li Mu’s health. In parallel, we follow the adventures of Kongwen (also Dong Zijian), Godslayer’s lead character, as he journeys through the war-torn kingdom of Ranliang to avenge his sister (a too briefly-seen Tong Liya) by killing the land’s evil despot Lord Redmane, protected by an army of red-armored assassins.

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THE WOLF WITCH (aka WHITE-HAIRED WITCH) (2020) short review

Whatever happened to Huang Yi? Not so long ago, she was well on her way to the A-list, with classy supporting roles in upscale productions like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s Overheard 2 and 3, Derek Chiu’s The Road Less Traveled and Johnnie To’s Romancing in Thin Air and Drug War, not to mention a very promising lead in Herman Yau’s The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake. Now here she is, headlining one of the many straight-to-VOD fantasy cheapies that rehash the main Chinese legends. The Monkey King is by far the most represented in the hundreds of online Chinese fantasy movies last year, but this is at least the third loose adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel 白髮魔女傳 (literally, “The Story of the White Haired Demoness”) in 2020. Nevertheless, Huang is well cast and engaging in the role, though it’s been flattened into a straight heroine role, rather than the nuanced figure of selfless love and destructive fury she was written as, and portrayed by the great Brigitte Lin in Ronny Yu’s superb diptych The Bride with White Hair. Huang doesn’t have Lin’s smoldering bravado in the role, nor Li Bingbing’s mean charisma in Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, but she easily outshines Fan Bingbing’s turn in Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. Director Wu Yingxiang keeps the plot coherent and the pace brisk, much like in his solid Taoist Master earlier in 2020. There’s none of the tragedy and scope of the original story and its best adaptation though, Wu going instead for a fairly routine adventure in which the Wolf Witch must find and expose an evil cult leader committing atrocities while posing as her. At least, action scenes are abundant and passable, their ornate stances and outlandish use of wires calling to mind Ching Siu Tung’s style. **

TAOIST MASTER: KYLIN (aka MASTER ZHANG 2) (2020) short review

Chen Cheng’s Taoist Master: Kylin is the quick fire sequel to Wu Yingxiang’s Taoist Master (released just a few months ago, already online), with Fan Siu Wong returning in the role of Zhang Taoling, the founder of the first organized form of Taoism, flanked by his disciple (Li Lubing, also returning). This time, Master Zhang arrives in a village near Mount Yun Jing, where Kylin, the legendary God of the Mountain, is rumored to prey on hunters and those foolhardy enough to venture into the mountain. While Taoist Master was on the higher end of Chinese direct-to-VOD films, this sequel is disappointingly average: it lacks the refreshing presence of Zhang Dong (who played a feisty huntress in the first film), it’s criminally low on fight scenes (one of the original’s strong suits), and the plot is the usual thudding supernatural set-up resolved with the censorship-placating hallucination card. Yet it’s nevertheless a brisk and entertaining affair, anchored again in the charismatic presence of the ever-underrated Fan Siu Wong. **

JIANG ZIYA: LEGEND OF DEIFICATION (2020) review

A few years back, the Monkey King myth could not be escaped in the Chinese film industry, with countless adaptations expensive and cheap, live-action and animated, straightforward and oblique, flooding the big screen every year. This trend has since then subsided, with Monkey fatigue resulting in a few high-profile box-office disappointments (among which Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 and Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong), and the ape deity nowadays mostly confined to online movies, where he’s played by B-list (Collin Chou, Fan Siu Wong) or C-list (Peng Yusi) names, rather than the Donnie Yen’s, Aaron Kwok’s and Eddie Peng’s of his mid-2010s heyday. Chinese big screen fantasy is instead now becoming the dominion of Ming Dynasty epic Fengshen Yanyi (aka The Investiture of the Gods).

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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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