THE MYSTERY OF DRAGON SEAL (aka VIY 2, aka JOURNEY TO CHINA: THE MYSTERY OF 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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HANSON AND THE BEAST (2017) review

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Xiao Yang’s Hanson and the Beast follows Yuan Shuai, aka Hanson (William Feng), a failed actor who is now neck deep in debt after taking a hefty loan to direct his own film and getting scammed. Now he’s trying to find himself a rich wife through a matchmaking service, while literally shoveling at a zoo that his now clinically insane father used to own. During a matchmaking date, he meets Bai Xianchu (Liu Yifei), who immediately reveals to him that she’s a fox demon, part of a tribe of animal demons that assume human form to dwell in our world. Hanson saved her life as a kid, when she was a little fox trapped in his father’s zoo and bullied by other kids. Now, she has found him again by chance and is in love with him, despite the warnings of her childhood friend – and cat demon – Hong Sicong (Guo Jingfei). For such a love is strictly forbidden by the commissioner of their tribe, Yun Zhonghe (Li Guangjie), who offers Hanson mountains of cash, provided that he inject her with poison and deliver her to him.

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THE MONKEY KING 3 (2018) review

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Though Monkey King films – and fantasy films in general – have been produced with remarkable regularity in China in the past six years, few have managed to spawn a franchise, let alone a trilogy. And if we don’t count Jeff Lau’s belated – and dire – A Chinese Odyssey Part III, then Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 bears the distinction of completing the first artistically unified (Soi directed all three films) big screen Chinese fantasy trilogy based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. After a dodgy franchise starter in 2014 that benefited from Donnie Yen’s impressively athletic dedication to portraying a young monkey but sank under the weight of its interminable and poorly-rendered power battles, and a sequel in 2016 that was a marked improvement and was made memorable by Gong Li’s powerhouse White Bone Demon, here comes the third installment, with all the key cast members returning, except for Kelly Chen, who has been replaced in her customary cameo as Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy by Liu Tao – not that too many people will notice.

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THE GOLDEN MONK (2017) short review

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The eponymous golden monk of this Wong Jing quickie is the same folk hero played by Stephen Chow in Johnnie To’s The Mad Monk (1993), Buddhist monk Ji Gong. Here played by Zheng Kai as a superpowered monk who when crossing paths with demon hunter Jade (Zhang Yuqi), realizes they have been lovers lifetimes ago in Heaven, while trying to fend off the evil dragon Beihai Dulong’s plot to overthrow the emperor. Co-directed by Billy Chung, The Golden Monk is a painful bore and an eyesore from start to finish. Its humour is the usual stodgy Wong Jing cocktail of tired Mo Lei Tau, tiresome pratfalls and cringe-worthy references to recent hits (here, the Marvel universe), while the action is plagued by truly embarrassing CGI, with poorly-rendered monsters jerking around endlessly against flat backgrounds. With its formula of demon-hunting, origin story, unhinged humour and a romantic tragedy involving a monk and a feisty hunter, the film desperately apes Stephen Chow’s infinitely superior Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a sorry sight indeed. While Zheng Kai has solid presence and comic timing, a vast supporting cast of Hong Kong, Mainland and Taiwanese comedians gesticulate hopelessly around him, while Zhang Yuqi seems to have mentally checked out very early into the film. And so should the audience. 1/2*