I have not been as lazy as my lack of posting on here might suggest, there’s a bunch of stuff that will be arriving over at Easternkicks in the next few weeks, but it really is time I got some more content on here. And being the masochist I am, why not have a look at a big budget Chinese fantasy film that stars one of my favorite actresses, but is hindered by my least favorite actor? And also lumbered with an awkward, hoping-for-a-sequel, title?
So, “Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” takes place in the mythical past, in the town of Hu. Hu is protected by Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), a demon slayer who is being tutored by lesser deity Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao). It seems that some millennial event is about to tae place that will allow the Demons of Hell to reincarnate as humans or maybe even gods. Zhang sends Zhong to hell to capture a device called the Dark Crystal, which is some kind of Macguffin that I really couldn’t work out from the otherwise exceptional subtitles actually did. Anyway, he steals it, which causes the King of Hell to despatch more demons to Hu to retrieve it. This includes the beautiful Xue Qin a.k.a. Snow Girl (Li Bing Bing), who seems to have some past connection with Zhong Kui. Love between Humans and Demons is never a recipe for happiness right? Zhang prepares Zhong for the oncoming onslaught by giving him the power to unleash his inner demon, a 10 foot tall giant with a sword for a spine. However, it isn’t just the romantic conflict which proves the turning point of our story, it turns out that there’s a little more going on than we might first have guessed. Can Zhong overcome all these obstacles?
I started off expecting to hate this one, but actually as the final credits rolled, I realised I had rather enjoyed it. It does take a while to get going, and is hamstrung a little by its source material. Zhong Kui is a mainstay of chinese folklore, a somewhat tragic fellow, cursed to both lead Hell and protect the human plane from encroaching demons (poacher and gamekeeper I guess), whose image can be found as a sign of protection in many chinese homes and businesses. So the film’s central mystery and twist actually plays out totally differently to the local and foreign audiences. This means that there is a lot of deliberate and quite awkward obscuring of our hero’s backstory, which doesn’t help the flow of things.
It is also awfully CGI heavy, I would say some 70% of the film is entirely computer generated (and clearly designed for 3D), and to be honest, the quality of the work is adaquate at best. Most of it looks like a computer game cut scene, and not a modern one at that. Luckily, the forward drive of the story (on the most part) and the human performances still make this somewhat enjoyable.
I find Kun Chen the dullest man in China on most occasions. Handsome to a fault, I rarely connect with him as an actor. However, here he is allowed to camp it up a bit, and hidden behind a scruffy beard (and for a short while as a creepy androgynous King of Hell), he is actually a huge amount of fun. Li Bing Bing is always good value, but here she is excellent, albeit with little to do than look mysterious and sexy. She does however have an obvious sexual chemistry with Chen, although being a Chinese Fantasy piece, you are not goning to get much more than a few platitudes and a hot tub.
I wanted a little more from the comic relief characters of Zhong’s sister and her fiance (Yang Zishan and Bao Bei-er), but they are a welcome addition when they do get time. Winston Chao is of course great. The breakout surprise however is Summer Jike, a runner up in one of China’s numerous singing shows, whose unusual dark skin and shining personality are a real loss when she disappears from the plot at the halfway stage.
It is all rather strange. The CGI is mostly awful. The early plotting is awkward and not a little confusing. It stars a man I usually cannot stand. Yet somehow I really enjoyed myself watching this. Maybe I sensed some kind of solid emotional underpinning in Zhong Kui’s story. It really is rather hard to explain. So I am going to give this one a Recommended. It might look like the 1996 Transformers: Beast Wars cartoon, but it is a rather enjoyable ride.