Monday, December 18, 2017

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia

There was Christmas shopping to do this weekend, so it seems like I'll only have time to see one of the two Chinese movies coming out this weekend before the crush of things coming out over the next seven days, and even though Dunjia isn't great, I still kind of feel like it's the right choice - it is, at least, kind of weird and unpredictable, which is certainly not the vibe I got from the Youth previews.

I must admit, though, that seeing what turned out to be a big effects-driven movie so soon after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi cannot help but lead to disappointment. Maybe someday I'll give it another chance, especially if that sequel promised toward the end ever comes out.

Qi men dun jia (The Thousand Faces of Dunjia)

* * (out of four)
Seen on 16 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

It's unfair to judge a movie based on how well it lives up to its previews, especially in a case like The Thousand Faces of Dunjia where the North American distributor is trying to sell the film to an audience that likely doesn't necessarily consider Da Peng, Ni Ni, Zhou Dongyu, and Aarif Lee an all-star cast and has a new Star Wars movie opening the same weekend to scratch their big special-effects itch. It's understandable that they don't show the big CGI creatures in that case, but it sure feels like a heck of a bait-and-switch when they show up in medieval China.

To give writer Tsui Hark and director Yuen Woo-ping their due, the introduction of the first alien is a lot of fun, as the giant three-eyed goldfish leads Constable Dao Yicheng (Aarif Rahman Lee) on a rooftop chase across Kaifeng City, with his paths crossing with Metal Dragonfly (Ni Ni), Third Sister of the secretive Wuyin Clan, the top-secret group that hunts down aliens causing trouble on Earth. A meteor crash nearby has caused alien activity to spike, which is why First Brother (Wu Bai) is seeking a powerful weapon in Luoyang and Second Brother Zhuge Chin (Da Peng) is seeking a prophesied new leader - though what he finds is "Circle" (Zhou Dongyu), a timid, amnesiac girl locked up in a mental hospital. Neither she nor Dao seems like they'll be nearly enough when what looks like a flying hairball emerges from the meteor to free a monster secretly kept in chains beneath the city.

Though Tsui Hark is probably best known in the United States for directing the first three Once Upon a Time in China films with Jet Li and a couple of mid-1990s Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks, he's spent a good chunk of his career trying to make the biggest special-effects extravaganzas possible on a Hong Kong budget, so a bunch of CGI monsters in a movie he wrote and produced isn't completely unexpected, even if director Yuen Woo-ping has mostly used digital effects to remove the wires from his anti-gravity martial arts choreography. The ones their effects team comes up with here are genuinely odd ducks indeed, well on the "fake" side of the uncanny valley, always lit just a bit too evenly, and with mouths that don't really move enough for how much dialogue they're given (though maybe that's a Mandarin/Cantonese thing), but enjoyably weird in their design. Though done with CGI rather than make-up and puppetry, there's something to them that evokes the gonzo creatures and zombies that Yoshihiro Nishimura creates for his low-budget monster films; as much as these things are never really fooling anybody, they're at least memorable enough to open a discussion on whether audiences should perhaps give rough digital effects the same leeway they give to rough practical ones.

Full review at EFC

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