Sunday, January 06, 2019

Ghost Blows Out the Light: Mojin: The Worm Valley & Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe

I usually try to catch up on a series before seeing the new entry in theaters, but in this case I didn't realize that I had had the first one on my shelf for the better part of a year, if not more so until I saw a couple people mention on Twitter that Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe was their favorite entry. I'd ordered a copy from Hong Kong a while back because it was 3D and relatively cheap, so I may as well get it while it's available, but didn't realize it was connected to the others at all. It came out three months before Mojin: The Lost Legend, which is some absolutely crazy "four different people played Philip Marlowe on screen for different studios between 1944 and 1947" stuff.

I wound up watching it after Worm Valley rather than before, which is fine because it in many ways is a totally different thing, although you can see plot points from one in the other, although a genetic defect caused by alien interbreeding in one becomes a curse that an empress put on her enemies in another (or vice versa). That I could watch one in 3D at home while the other was flat in the theater was kind of funny to me, but it doing so showed just how much all three of these films are really built for giant 3D screens. Watching one in 3D at home wasn't properly overwhelming, but did seem framed better, even though I was getting a different part of the intended experience watching the other on the big screen.

One pleasant surprise was seeing that Chronicles was directed by Lu Chuan, whose first film I saw at the Boston Film Festival back in 2003 (back when the BFF was pretty decent and just prior to this becoming a movie review blog, which means my review actually wound up on Ain't It Cool under the alias "Paul Revere" because, well, it was AICN in 2003). I liked it, but never really had much opportunity to keep track of the director's career, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the guy who had made a little movie I liked 15 years ago had worked his way into a position to direct blockbusters about a decade later. And then, his next movie was a nature documentary for Disney, which is an interesting career path.

Anyway, I can't wholeheartedly recommend the new Mojin, but Chronicles turned out to be a really fun discovery, and I wasn't being dumb ordering it practically at random from the other side of the world. Now, if only that place would put a 3D Detective Dee III Blu-ray up for pre-order...

Yun nan chong gu (Mojin: The Worm Valley)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 January 2018 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

There's a certain look to the actors who replace stars when a series goes from theaters to video or television (or, in this case, gets a budget cut): A little smaller, a little more blandly good-looking, wearing someone else's costumes and hairstyles, neither of which quite suits them. Every single person in The Worm Valley has this look, as does the film itself, and it probably doesn't matter whether you've seen the previous Mojin movie or not; this one's going to feel like a lesser copy of something.

It seems to pick up roughly where the previous film left off, with grave-robber Hu Bayi (Cai Heng), archeologist Shirley Yang (Gu Xuan), and their whole team cursed to die early deaths for having retrieved the Dragon Bone Tome, though that helpfully points the way to the Mu Chen Orb and which, when combined with it, will lift the curse upon them. So off the team - including "Fatty" Wang Kaixuan (Yu Heng), "Gold Tooth" JinYa (Ma Yuke), Professor Sun (Cheng Taishen), and Zhou Linglong (Chen Yuai), daughter of their benefactor (Tang Zhiwei) - goes to rural China, where the clues suggest that the Tomb of Xiangwang is hidden on the other side of an underground river.

It's not a bad group, really, although clearly a step down from the all-star cast Wuershan had playing the same characters three years ago in terms of fame. Cai Heng and Gu Xuan have nice chemistry as Bayi and Shirley, and Yu Heng has a sort of eager charm as Kaixuan (although, for a guy they call "Fatty", he kind of seems more burly than anything). Chen Yuai is doing her level best to be the enthusiastic kid sister of the group, and Cheng Taishen is doing a fair world-weary. Tuo Zonghua chews some scenery as the guy allegedly driven insane on the same quest. They're not wooden or mugging, but all seemingly trying to hit the spot where these characters seem familiar and comfortable rather than putting a stamp on them.

Full review at EFC.

Jiu ceng yao ta (Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4/5 January 2018 in Jay's Living Room #12 (catch-up, 3D Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Tian Xia Ba Chang's "Ghost Blows Out the Light" novels don't appear to be available in English, but I get the idea from the other movies that have been made from them that this takes a few liberties, for better or worse. Fortunately, there's no particular need to force them into any sort of single continuity, and though this particular take is less swashbuckling adventure than monster movie, it's generally a pretty good one.

It opens with a montage of strange discoveries in China during the twentieth century, culminating with the discovery of strange fossils beneath the Yunnan Mountains in the 1970s. Hu Bayi (Mark Zhao You-ting) is doing his military service there in 1979, nursing a crush on nurse Yang Ping (Yao Chen) - whose father (Wang Qingxiang) is leading the excavation - when an explosion in the shaft reveals hidden chambers and passages which are filled with evidence of a lost civilization and lethal creatures. Hu Bayi survives, soon placed in a new job where he's reunited with childhood friend "Fatty" Wang Kaixuan (Feng Li), not knowing that a secret government bureau is holding the Yangs - at least, not until monsters lay waste to an Oil town and he is called in to assist.

The opening segment of this movie is propulsive, fast-paced pulp, probably too fast to be maintained, but it's throwing cool ideas, mysteries, and even a bit of a barbed sense of humor at the audience just fast enough to be absorbed before Hu Bayi and Yang Ping go into the cave and all heck breaks loose. Screenwriter/director Lu Chuan puts the audience in a good position to pick things up on the run, and hits just the right tone. It's a sort of light luridness, combining the excitement of discovering new things with the fact that action of this type does often involve people dying horribly. He keeps just enough of a toehold on the real world that he can eventually dial it back and build back up to more fantasy, although the sharp jump out of this segment is a bit jarring.

Full review at EFC.

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