Acclaimed Hong Kong cinematographer Peter Pau takes another swing at directing a major motion picture with this grand scale fantasy about legendary demon queller Zhong Kui. Assisted by co-director Zhao Tianyu and featuring some spirited performances, the result is a bumpy, yet enjoyable tale of otherworldly romance and adventure.
The character of Zhong Kui is essentially the Chinese mythological equivalent of an exorcist, ghostbuster or Van Helsing. An accomplished scholar, Zhong Kui committed suicide when he was rejected by the emperor due to his disfigured appearance. Banished to hell, Zhong Kui was recruited by Yan Wang, the Hell king, to patrol the three realms - Heaven, Earth and Hell - and maintain order among the spirits. Even today, his image can be seen guarding the entrances to homes and offices.
Somewhat surprisingly, Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal marks the first time Zhong Kui's escapades have been adapted for the big screen, as his legacy seems perfect for the kind of big budget action fantasies that have been embraced wholeheartedly of Chinese audiences in recent years. To that end, it shows no small amount of restraint that this foray is so straight-forward and uncluttered, particularly as the film has six credited screenwriters as well as two credited "literary consultants".
Peter Pau, who shot countless Hong Kong favourites including The Killer and The Bride With White Hair, is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Perhaps Pau's intention with this film, which he wrote, produced and directed as well as lensed, is to kickstart a new franchise of Zhong Kui adventures. And on the basis of this offering there is some potential of sequels to follow, without deliberately leaving narrative strands obviously open.
When we are introduced to Zhong Kui (Chen Kun) he is already established as a notorious demon queller. After stealing the powerful Dark Crystal from the underworld demons, he brings it back to his hometown of Hu for safekeeping. Once a millennium the dark crystal allows for safe and open passage between all three realms for seven days. If the crystal falls into the wrong hands, all of humanity could be wiped out.
The gods send Zhang Daoxian (Winston Zhao) to Hu in order to watch over the city during this crucial week. Meanwhile, the Hell King's lizard demon (played by singer Jike Junyi) leads a covert group, disguised as beautiful female dancers, to steal back the stone. Among their number is the alluring snow demon Little Snow (Li Bingbing), whom it quickly becomes apparent has something of a history with Zhong Kui.
There is no small amount of ambition on screen in Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal, which makes a spirited attempt to be both a fantasy action epic (in The Monkey King mould), and a doomed romance, a la Bride With White Hair. Plenty of time is also spent on Zhang's ongoing tuition of Zhong Kui to harness his inhuman powers and become the ultimate pan-dimensional warrior. However, his training and mission to protect the crystal are thrown through a loop by the arrival of Little Snow, whom he knows to be a demon but is still in love with.
As one might expect from a film of this scale, there is a huge amount of CGI work on display, and it is in its execution where the frayed edges of the film become visible. Celebrated New Zealand effects house Weta Workshop were employed to create the otherworldly set designs within the film, which prove as immersive and spectacular as one might imagine.
However, it is the character work - particularly on the underworld creatures and Zhong's own demonic "beast mode" form - provided by Macrograph and Pixomondo where the production lacks the level of photo-realism international audiences demand these days, often resembling dated arcade game level graphics. Nevertheless, Pau's experience with the camera wins out, and the film always manages to look visually interesting, even when the effects let it down.
The performances are strong, with Chen Kun and Li Bingbing bringing believable chemistry and tragic heartbreak to their forbidden romance, which stands in stark contrast to the emotional void of last year's White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom. Li Bingbing gets a well deserved one-up over her namesake Fan, perfectly capturing that balance between allure, yearning and unattainable beauty. Chen too proves himself both heroic and dashing in the lead role.
Elsewhere, Jike Junyi's lizard demon makes the strongest impression. The young singer from Sichuan burst onto the scene after coming third in China's reality singing show The Voice of China, and she transitions brilliantly to the screen in a mostly silent, but nevertheless striking role - often drawing our gaze away from the ethereal Li. So Young's Yang Zishan and Bao Bai'er fill out the supporting cast as Zhong's sister and best friend respectively, while Winston Chao brings suitable gravitas to the deity, Zhang Daoxian.
There is no denying that Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal contains some dubious gender politics, with almost every female character presented as dangerously beautiful, otherworldly and ultimately a corrupting influence on otherwise dedicated scholars and righteous men. This is a popular trope in Chinese fantasy, which we have seen recently in the aforementioned White Witch and its previous incarnations, as well as the Painted Skin series and many others besides. While on the one hand it is encouraging to have such strong female roles in mainstream cinema, must they always be such a poisonous distraction blamed for men's own failings?
If viewers can get past the sometimes ropey FX work, the vague explanations of the three-tiered universe in which the film operates and some of its questionable representations of women, there is some engaging action and romance to be found in Zhong Kui: Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal. With any luck it will prove successful enough to open the doors for more otherworldly Zhong Kui adventures in the future, as it's a universe I would gladly return to again.