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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GENGHIS KHAN (2018) review

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There have been more than a few films made about the great 12th-century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan – the most successful and closest to reality probably being Sergei Brodov’s Mongol (2007) with Tadanobu Asano – but none that have offered such a wild fantasy spin on his rise to power as Hasi Chaolu’s Genghis Khan. William Chan stars as Temujin (later known as Genghis Khan, which means “universal ruler”), a young Mongol boy whose romance with Borte (Lin Yun), a girl from a neighboring tribe, is abruptly interrupted when his father is killed during a battle by Kuchuru (Hu Jun), an evil warlord. But after being beheaded in combat, the warlord is resurrected by the love of his life, the witch Dodai (Zhang Xinyi). However, the resurrection comes at a price: Dodai is now hostage to the King of Hell, who thus has Kuchuru do his bidding: soon, an alignment of planets will signal the perfect moment for him to lead an army of orcs and skeletons to invade the grasslands of Mongolia. Years pass, and a now grown-up Temujin sets out to find Borte and marry her, but fate as other plans. Like his ancestor Cina, armed with the mighty spear Soledin, the Mongol hero is called to unite the tribes of Mongolia and take the fight for his land into the depths of hell.

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LEGEND OF THE DEMON CAT (2017) review

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Based on a best-seller by Japanese author Baku Yumemakura, this massive, 200-million dollars production – whose enormous sets are soon to become an amusement park – is a uniquely ambitious co-production between Mainland China, Japan and Hong Kong. It takes place in the year 805, as a mysterious black cat stalks the imperial palace in Chang’an, just as the gravely ill emperor Dezong dies from a violent fit ; the same cat appears to Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao), captain of the imperial guard, and to his wife Chunqin (Zhang Yuqi), revealing to them a cache of money, but asking in return to be fed eyes – the eyes of any creature, including humans. Buddhist monk Kukai (Shota Sometani), who had arrived from Japan to meet the emperor and senses the presence of the black cat, joins forces with scholar, poet and newly-fired imperial scribe Bai Letian (Huang Xuan) to unravel the mystery: they soon realize it takes its root thirty years before, when Tang emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi) had his consort – and legendary beauty – Yang Yuhuan (Sandrine Pinna) killed. A known historical fact, about which Bai Letian has been writing a poem for the past few years: and yet it may be a lie, as the personal account of Abe no Nakamaro (Hiroshi Abe), a scholar who knew the emperor and his consort, seems to reveal.

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