A great film from China that needed just a bit of editing.
Many centuries ago, a serpent demon was going to destroy the Earth. Four masters came together to seal the snake within the body of the Empress, protected by four stone guardians. Since then, whenever the serpent threatens to be released, four masters must join together to stop them. This time, three of the masters are Longye (Jessie Li), Bo Ya (Deng Lun), and Qing Ming (Mark Chao). The fourth, Hongruo, was murdered by a hair demon. Yes, a hair demon. Under the guidance of Princess Zhang Ping (Olivia Wang), the three must investigate the death and, with the help of replacement priest He Shouye (Wang Duo), must release the four stone guardians and prevent the release of the Serpent.
This movie is visually amazing. It’s largely CGI and green screen, much of it not particularly realistic, but the style of the film has a surreal quality that makes the imagery work really well. When nothing quite looks “real,” then nothing stands out as being fake, and this movie manages to use that to its advantage. Since they weren’t concerned about everything looking perfect like many American blockbusters, they instead put the effort into creative and interesting characters and settings. I particularly love the designs of the stone guardians and the demons that they encounter, which appear to be a combination of blockbuster effects and Chinese mythology. The costuming and makeup, likewise, are so stylized that they give the film an air of epic myth. The cinematography is done pretty much perfectly, in the sense of heightening all of these effects. Like I said, if you want a pretty film, this is it.
As far as the story goes, this… kind of lets me down. In most Chinese epics, the plot is kind of weak, but they make up for that with a lot of extensive action sequences. This movie tones down the action sequences (not that there aren’t any, they just seem shorter than similar films) and tries to make up for that with more plot and background scenes. Note that I used the word “tries.” Really, a lot of these scenes would probably be fine if they were a bit shorter. Instead, this movie clocks in at 2 hours and 12 minutes with a plot that could probably have been done in 90. As such, there were a bunch of shots in the film that made me go “wait, are we STILL here?” I realize part of the cause of this is probably that the director was really proud of the visuals and wanted to indulge a bit, but sometimes you have to let things go.
The performances are pretty solid, particularly Mark Chao as Qing Ming, who has to deal with a number of conflicts between his principles and reality throughout the film. His performance has a little more subtlety than I might expect from this kind of film, and since he’s the main character, that pays off, particularly when he’s having scenes of contemplative dialogue exchanges with others.
Overall, while I would cut the movie down (or watch parts of it on 1.5 speed), I still enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of Chinese cinema, I’d say it’s a quality watch.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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