Written by Junli Guo, Raymond Lei Jin, and Huanhuan Zhang
Directed by Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu
Hong Kong, 2015
In recent years the Chinese and Hong Kong film scene has grown exponentially more important with respect its movie output and the lucrative potential that has Hollywood studios salivating, chasing cross-national picture deals which secure distribution rights on the island and mainland. As American, big budget productions have found ways to co-produce projects with the Chinese producers and film on their soil, so too have Chinese and Hong Kong production companies upped their game in an attempt to showcase their own blockbuster inclinations. Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, is another in a long line of Chinese fantasy action movies that offer spectacle and a sweeping story that attempts to rival the best that Hollywood has to offer.
Set many centuries ago in a fictional, fantasy-laden version of China, the movie follows Zhong Kui (played by Kun Chen), a popular character in Chinese mythology that chases and eliminates ghosts and various evil spirits. At the start of the picture, he is called upon by a lower level god, Zhang Doaxian (Winston Chao) to assist in preventing the demons of the underworld from overtaking Earth. It would appear that a thousand year long wait will soon be over for the dwellers of hell as a complicated collection of astrological and divinity-related variables are all about to fall into place, thus enabling the gates of hell to open up. What’s more, Zhong Kui, under orders from his mentor Zhang steals the titular Dark Crystal, a coveted stone with unimaginable powers, from the underworld. Hell strikes back however, not merely by slowly unleashing its arsenal of monsters, but also by having Zhong Kui cross paths with a former lover, Snow Girl (Bingbing Li), a demon presently looking to play her role in upstaging the forces of good.
Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is equal measures entertaining and disappointing. On the one hand, directors Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu have together collected a wonderful cast to bring ancient mythological characters to life and a crew of craftsmen and craftswomen capable of whipping up some awe-inspiring sets and costumes that help with the world building process. In a nutshell, Zhong Kui is, in many respects, equipped with enough to please the eyes and ears of many a cinephile willing to be taken away by the sweeping sense of adventure proposed by Chinese tales of yore.
The titular creature hunter is, from the opening scenes, a very sharply drawn character, thanks in no small part to actor Kun Chen. Funny, capable of taking on multiple personas for the purposes of infiltration and reconnaissance, emotionally honest, Kun Chen delivers a multifaceted performance that fits perfectly well in the brilliantly melodramatic story the filmmakers have to offer. He is earthy and instantly likable, which is already a lot more than can be said about a lot of protagonists in films of the same ilk. His co-star Bingbing Li holds her own as well as the conflicted former lover wrestling with her inner feelings given the precarious situation her commandeer has set her up in. Just as charismatic is Winston Chao as Zhang Daoxian, the lower level god that fills the role of wily mentor to Zhong Kui’s youthful pupil.
As for the set design, much of Zhong Kui is beautiful to behold, presenting a diverse array of locations, both indoor and outdoor, that work wonders in creating a grandiose feeling, that the movie’s world is immense and longing to be explored. Some of the computer generated visual effects applied to enhance the world add to the wonderment viewers will behold, ‘some’ being the key word. One of the issues that really affects the film is said computer effects. Whilst some perform their duties admirably, others appear horrendously out of place and, frankly, outdated. The question of computer imagery in film has raged for several years already. Long gone are the days when movie goers and critics alike watched in bemusement at the incredible advancements filmmakers pushed forward to create worlds and beings impossible to concoct not so long ago. Jurassic Park, T2: Judgment Day, Independence Day, those were movies that opened peoples’ eyes to the possibilities of visual effects. In 2015, cynicism has set in, as has fatigue at the barrage of visual effects tossed around week in and week out at the multiplex. Several of Zhong Kui’s computer generated characters, most notably when the protagonist shape shifts into demon form, would have impressed perhaps 15 years ago, but not today. It is a testament to the double-edged sword that is the rapidity of technological advancement. It occurs so quickly that what looks good one day looks cheap soon thereafter, and unfortunately, lot of the movie looks cheap, character designs and movements being aspects that suffer the most.
The movie’s flaws extend to its plot as well. While the set-up is adequate and succinctly puts the viewer in the know as to what they should expect as far as apocalyptic possibilities are concerned, the second half is bogged down in a swamp of duplicitous character motivations that jettisons much of the first half’s story. Demons are suddenly fighting alongside Zhong Kui despite that for the better part of an hour they were depicted as ugly, foul beasts hell bent on humanity’s destruction, and those the hero believed he could trust turn out to have humanity’s worst interests in mind. Convoluted and laborious, what starts out as a lean fantasy-laden action tale morphs into a tedious exercise in pulling out twists from the screenwriters’ hats for reasons that, for dramatic purposes, serve little purpose.
Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu’s Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is film of two halves. One half presents a story of star crossed lovers fighting against the expectations of their respective camps in order to rekindle what they once had, all of this occurring in many sumptuously produced sets. The other half is a barrage of subpar computer effects that force-feeds a delirious plot and renders demonic and godly objectives maddeningly senseless. Enjoy the Snow Girl but forget about the Dark Crystal.