Saturday 28 February 2015

Zhong Kui: Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal (2015) - Movie Review

In my short time of compulsively watching as many films as I do, and even shorter time of reviewing them for public consumption, I feel I have covered a wide spectrum of films in that time that I have given a wide spectrum of reactions to. However, no matter what film I looked at, no matter how out-of-my-depth I may have been concerning the genre, country of origin or subject matter, I always prided myself on being able to articulate exactly why I felt the way I did about each one of them. Sure, I’ve had films that were difficult for me to pin down: Birdman took me a while to really collect my thoughts about, 12 Years A Slave had me hesitating because of peer pressure and how much the rest of the world seemed to love it and God’s Not Dead had to be severely edited from the reams of notes I wrote on it so as to not piss off every religious group under the sun, or rather out of paranoia that that would happen. Today, however, I think I have found a film to top them all in that regard.

The plot: Zhong Kui (Chen Kun) is a demon hunter under the tutelage of the deity Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao). He is tasked by Zhang to steal the Dark Crystal, the receptacle for all the souls taken by demons, from Hell and the Demon King tasks Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) and a group of seductive female demons to get it back from the city of Hu where it is now being kept. As the two sides clash, an epic battle begins that will decide the fate of Earth, Heaven and Hell.

The first thing that comes to mind when bringing up this film, and indeed the first thing that most audience members will notice, is the CGI on display here. Put simply, it looks like it was all pulled straight out of sixth-generation games that should be on the PS3 or Xbox 360; it’s at that weird midway point where it looks fine, but it is still quite obviously CGI. Another midway point the CGI work exists in, at least when it comes to Zhong Kui’s demonic form is, one that has become the land most dare not tread: The midway point between realistic and fake that is the uncanny valley. The motion capture, particularly for the face, is unnerving like only uncanny valley dwellers can manage. Snow Girl’s demonic form has this but to a far lesser extent since the character design for her looks more humanoid than strictly human. Zhong Kui, on the other hand, looks like a more defined version of the Dark Prince from Prince Of Persia: The Two Thrones, right down to a remarkably similar looking weapon; it may look good in the game, but it looks surprisingly out of place in a live-action film.

This video game aesthetic extends beyond the effects and even gets into the action scenes as well: aside from one or two set pieces, the action beats are entirely done in CGI with a few real sets here and there. They are extremely lame as a result, all looking floaty and too overblown to really get invested in. The only time when I actually found myself properly getting into a fight scene was near the end when Zhang finally got a chance to fight that didn’t involve him poofing into clouds of gold dust the entire time. Unfortunately, that was only because the green screen work on him was hideous. I’ve ranted at length about bad screening before, with movies like The Legend Of Hercules and I, Frankenstein, but this doesn’t so much take the biscuit as much as it holds Arnott’s hostage for its recipes. Every shot with Winston Chao on-screen during that fight looks like the 21st century’s answer to the rear-projecting in Puma Man; seriously, it looks that bad. My jaw visibly dropped and hung low while watching this scene, easily the biggest reaction it managed to get out of me for its duration.

As a means of clawing my way out of the mire of negativity this film has thrown me into, I find myself looking back on the musical score with a lot of fondness. Composer Javier Navarrete, whom I mainly remember for creating the achingly beautiful music for Pan’s Labyrinth, brings some of his best for this film with a great mixture of soaring and delicate orchestration that add a lot of oomph to their accompanying scenes. This film’s main showcase for why this soundtrack is as good as it is is during the dancing sequence where Snow Girl and her troupe are performing; the instrumentation and rather angelic singing combine with the graceful movements of the dancers to create something genuinely beautiful to watch. However, this film is unfortunately another in a long list of lackluster films that Navarrete has worked on, continuing the tradition of his music being one of the best parts of their respective films, if not the best.

And now we reach the elephant in the room: Thanks to this film, Winter’s Tale has a competitor for the most incomprehensible film I’ve seen since I started criticising films as much as I do these days. Not to say that this film is as pants-on-head stupid as Winter’s Tale was, but they both share a similar problem in that there is a rather large amount of the plot that isn’t explained properly. I mentioned how this film feels like it took a lot of inspiration from the video game medium and that extends to the basic plot, right down to the mentor heel-turn that has become a cliché for many, many years at this point. Although, to be fair, the scene detailing said heel-turn is one of the other big highlights for the film as Chao and Kun’s blocking make for a very engaging scene, even if the details surrounding it are embarrassingly disjointed.

There is a very specific sensation to describe how the script for this comes across: it’s as if the six writers behind the script (too many cooks and all that) originally wrote it as a trilogy of films, then decided to condense it down to a single film by taking miscellaneous pages from all three and mashing them together, inexplicably ending on where the first film would have ended just in case. The biggest, or rather the most obvious, offender on these grounds is the romantic subplot between Zhong and Snow Girl. Their relationship is primarily developed through flashbacks that look like recaps of a previous non-existent film, leading to a lot of fruitless searching online for a predecessor film to this one, and even then the subplot as a whole takes a backseat to the aforementioned weaksauce action scenes. It’s less like a drive-by romance and more like a back-alley-stabbing romance, where there isn’t even a chance of seeing where it came from.

All in all… actually, I’m not even sure of how to sum this up. The action scenes are dull and crammed full of bizarre-looking CGI, the score is amazingly good, the acting is okay but nothing to write home about and the plot induces head-scratching that will draw blood before too long. This will probably go down as the film that was the most difficult for me to write a review for, seeing as how much I was racking my brain trying to articulate what I thought about this film; I found it that baffling.

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