Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Once Upon a Time

It's kind of reductive to talk about men's & women's films, but there's something worth talking about when you look at it as "things thought of as men's & women's films". I'm having a hard time thinking of any big effects-laden blockbusters from the west that are built as this kind of romance. It might just be a matter of timing - there have been movies like Upside Down, and I don't know how visually nutty Twilight got - but this is the first high-fantasy film I can recall where the romance is central, and the quest or fight is secondary.

I wonder, a bit, if there's anything like this on the drawing boards in the U.S. The "discovery" that women and girls will buy tickets for blockbusters in large numbers is predicated on action/adventure films with female leads, not stuff that is traditionally feminine but also visually lush, grand fantasy. There's Crimson Peak, I guess, now that I think of it, but that wasn't really a hit. But, I notice that we get a lot of romantic comedies/dramas from China, probably more than come from Hollywood and play mainstream theaters, and I wonder if they are just better at catering to the audience that, male or female, would rather watch people falling in love and struggling with it than beating each other up right now - and whether Hollywood will catch on.

Once Upon a Time (Once Upon a Time)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2017 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

The trouble with reviewing something like Once Upon a Time on a platform that is pretty much all words is that sometimes a movie's story can be utterly ridiculous and its dialogue (at least in subtitle form) inartful at best, and it's easy to point that out, whereas the argument for the movie is "just look at this thing!" It's a fantasy romance of rare visual splendor, maybe just enough to overcome all of the other very real problems it has.

Royal Immortal Bai Qian (Crystal Liu Yifei) is the Empress of Qingqiu; a six-tailed fox in her spirit form and looking quite good for her 140,000 years, especially considering that she seems to be drinking a lot. She's betrothed to Ye Hua (Yang Yang), a crown prince who at a mere 50,000 years of age seems absurdly young to her. Nevertheless, they meet at a party in the Eastern Sea, although Qian first meets A Li (Peng Zisu), Ye Hua's "Little Rice Ball" of a son with a mortal named Su Su who threw herself off a platform and into oblivion 300 years ago. Qian, it seems, looks just like Su Su, leading the prince to make a more active attempt to woo her and thus earning the ire of Su Jin (Li Chun), the Princess Consort with enough of a crush on Ye Hua to conspire with demoness Xuan Nu (Gu Xuan), who aside from wanting to use A Li's body to resurrect her unborn child also wishes to free demon king Qing Cang (Kevin Yan Yikuan) from the Eastern Magic Bell where he was sealed by Qian's former master Mo Yuan, who is now frozen in a cave near Qian's home.

It would be easy enough to write a version of that last paragraph (or even cut a trailer) that emphasizes the latter half, playing up the monsters and grand battle scenes and suggesting that Bai Qian and Ye Hua are a warrior odd couple who will wind up together because they're the male and female lead, but for better or worse, the action/adventure is decidedly secondary: The bulk of the movie is Ye Hua feeling that his betrothal to to Bai Qian is destiny but wondering if his attraction is influenced by how he failed Su Su, while Bai Qian finds she is starting to like this impertinent young man but not only denies any connection to Su Su but worries about being unfaithful to to Mo Yuan, as she has waited millennia for his soul and body to reunite. It's a fantastically grand romance and would be even if one knocked the time frame down to a less grandiose level - despite the scale of it, the motives of everybody are pretty easy to grasp, whether Bai Qian is second-guessing herself or Su Jin is acting on simple jealousy. Like any good, expansive mythology, there are little sub-stories that could be spun out into their own entertaining movies: There's a great horror movie in Xuan Nu's desire to place her unborn son's soul in A Li's immortal body, and the outlines of something gothic in the flashbacks to a pregnant Su Su brought into the palace but placed among the maids.

For all the grand scale of the love stories that have the potential to coalesce into one - indeed, because of how eternal and powerful this romance is supposed to be - the film needs the central couple to work no matter how they are paired up, and that's an area where the film often falls short. Crystal Liu Yifei handles what is thrown at her fairly well - the recklessness and pettiness shown early occasionally allows a glimpse of dissatisfaction, and she invests what could just be fantasy big-talk with genuine introspection later when talking about how her long life breaks into phases where she barely feels like the same person. There's more spark between her and Luo Jin as the old friend who tends her kingdom's peach orchard than there is with Yang Yang's Ye Hua, though, and it's not just that Ye Hua is initially written as a jerk (girl says she's not interested, you don't just show up at her house with your kid and literally claim a place in her bed as your right, even if you are betrothed and the Crown Prince). Yang does a fairly good job of making Ye Hua more than his initial smarm and even eventually looking like he's got genuine rather than plot-mandated affection for Bai Qian, but it's kind of telling that the pair seem to display the most chemistry in the flashbacks of a younger Ye Hua with Su Su, scenes which have them posing under voiceover narration rather than doing anything back and forth.

Full review on EFC.

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