Hello, Mrs. Money (李茶的姑妈, Wu Yuhan, 2018)

Hello Mrs Money posterComedy theatre company Mahua Funage have been dominating the lucrative National Day box office for the past few years with a series of late September hits beginning with Goodbye Mr Loser back in 2015 and running to last year’s run away success Never Say Die. This year’s offering, Hello, Mrs. Money (李茶的姑妈, chá de Gūseems set to continue the trend with another hilarious farce loosely inspired by Charley’s Aunt which, ironically enough, hits modern day capitalism right where it hurts through the form of a crowd pleasing rom-com.

Opening with a lengthy musical number which turns out to be a rehearsal for a welcome celebration for the titular auntie, “Miss Monica” (Celina Jade), the action takes place on a romantic island on which rich kid Richard (Song Yang) plans to propose to his reluctant girlfriend, Lulu, who is the daughter of a wealthy businessman, Andy Wong, who has talked her into dating Richard because the family business is failing. Also at the celebration is Lulu’s sister, Lili, who is unhappily married to Jerry (Allen Ai) who has brought his dad, Liang, along because their family business is also failing and he keeps trying to kill himself. In order to save his dad’s life, Jerry has convinced Liang his best shot lies in seducing Monica and becoming a wealthy husband. Monica, however, will not be coming – she wants to see whether Richard and Lulu really want to get married or are just putting on a show for her money, which presents a serious problem for Richard and Jerry.

Meanwhile, Huang (Huang Cailun), the lowly assistant charged with setting all of this up, decides that if Monica won’t be using the luxury villa he took the trouble of furnishing for her, he might as well make use of it himself. As Huang has a naturally small frame, he is accidentally mistaken for a sleeping Monica after passing out drunk in her bathrobe which gives Richard and Jerry and idea. Huang finds himself having to play the part of a wealthy woman but discovers that it’s not quite all as easy as he assumed it would be, especially when the “real” Monica also turns up but decides to go along with the ruse by posing as his “personal housekeeper”.

Monica largely remains on the sidelines, a passive observer to the chaos all around her as just about everyone else becomes obsessed with the idea of helping themselves to a part of her money. This seems to be a phenomenon she’s well familiar with which is why she decided not to go the island in the first place, but finds the act of watching someone pretend to be her and experience a gentle erasure of identity in being reduced to a giant walking wallet fascinating if also perhaps surprising and occasionally hilarious. Both Liang and Wong, a pair of failed middle-aged men, are determined to make themselves kings by becoming Mr. Monica, willing to undergo any and all kinds of humiliation as long as they get the cash. In a story Wong is fond of telling, he once made a speech in college in which he offered the audience a $20 bill only to throw it to the floor and crush it with his heel in an act intended to humiliate by proving that still they wanted the money. His loathsome life lesson eventually gets fed back to him by a revolutionary “Monica” but it proves a difficult one to overturn as evidenced by the ironic rejection of her act of insurrection which sees her chased by a mob of zombified, money crazed men who all somehow think they’re better than Wong and Liang for being exactly the same.

To begin with, Huang is no different – he loved helping himself to Monica’s villa with its fancy cigars and well stocked bar. Consistently humiliating himself by scaling the garden wall to swap identities, it’s all Huang can do to hold on to his job as he becomes consumed by ambition and determined to manipulate Jerry into getting him a promotion to the executive class. Only latterly does he begin to wake up, realising just what his pointless quest has cost him. It’s a move which can’t help but endear him to the “real” Monica who remains surprised by his essential goodness even if he began to lose his way for a time.

The message is clear – the older generation who might praise the economic reforms which have allowed them to become wealthy and powerful are also corrupt, selfish, and immoral perpetuating a system of diminishing returns in which money is the only thing that matters. The central irony is that Monica is really rich, and so when you lose you also win and it’s difficult (or perhaps easy) to claim that money doesn’t matter when you have a lot of it. Nevertheless Huang’s increasingly frantic scheming, the frustrated romances, and conflicting motivations of the family members each contribute to a fast moving farce in which the money is really just a MacGuffin which forces an eventual reconsideration of the follies of greed, providing a (mild) course correction towards a less avaricious future.


Hello, Mrs. Money is currently on limited release in cinemas across the UK.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Li Yu, 2001)

513cslBr5wLThe first narrative feature from former documentarian and TV presenter Li Yu, Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Jīn Nián Xià Tiān) is touted as the first film from mainland China to explicitly deal with lesbian life in modern Beijing. Necessarily shot under the radar to get around China’s strict censorship requirements, the film almost disappeared after “getting lost” on return from the Venice Film Festival (where a mishap with missing reels apparently led to a less than stellar reception though Li did eventually pick up an award) but went on to feature in a number of international festivals even if not quite welcomed at home. Imperfect and somewhat clumsy in execution, Fish and Elephant is nevertheless as whimsical as its title might suggest if only in its ironically abstracted need for detachment.

Xiaoqun is approaching 30 and unmarried. Despite her mother’s pleas and the needling of relatives Xiaoqun has no desire to marry. She supports herself well enough as an elephant keeper at the zoo and lives alone in a small apartment. A desire for independence is not the only reason Xiaoqun chooses to remain single – she is gay. Unable to state this fact openly, Xiaoqun is often forced to attend various blind dates set up by her mother who emotionally blackmails her by bursting into tears on the phone. Nevertheless, she eventually develops a flirtation with a young woman, Xiaoling, who owns her own clothing store at the market. Before long the women have moved in together and established an easy domesticity only for Xiaoqun’s mother to turn up unannounced determined to see her daughter wed. As if that weren’t enough, Xiaoqun’s long lost ex, Junjun, also arrives without warning apparently on the run from the police for “bank robbing”.

Perhaps because of the need to shoot covertly, Li’s script is structurally threadbare involving several large narrative jumps but the quality of unseen incompleteness plays into the film’s central theme in that the lives of women like Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are often invisible and hidden from view. We observe the two women’s courtship obliquely and in stages as they flirt (tentatively), wait for each other, are frustrated by exes, and finally come to a kind of agreement framed against the turquoise of of Xiaoqun’s bedroom wall which makes the pair look uncomfortably like the goldfish trapped inside her aquarium. Even this is unspoken and uncertain, hands tentatively grasped in trying to confirm that the situation has been read correctly until it is quite literally sealed with a kiss.

Xiaoqun, at least, is not so afraid to tell people what she is, only they never seem to believe her. Her uncle, berating her for turning down all the suitors he finds and reminding her that it’s the “proper thing” for women to marry and bear children, asks her what the problem is, to which Xiaoqun replies that she’s told him plenty of times before – she’s “no interest in men”. The uncle cannot process this information and offers to find a therapist to help with Xiaoqun’s supposed “issues”. Similarly, she decides to tell it straight to one of her dates – “I don’t like men, I like women”, but he refuses to listen. It seems he’s familiar with the concept, but doesn’t really believe in it and assumes Xiaoqun is trying to skip out on the date without giving him a proper chance by saying something outrageous.

Each time Xiaoqun calmly explains her life choices, everyone just ignores her. Either they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept that her sexuality is a good enough “excuse” for refusing to conform to the social order. Not until she finally attempts to come out to her mother does Xiaoqun actually say “I am gay” and then only very quickly followed directly by an explicit explanation of what she means. Unfortunately her mother still can’t quite get it, the language and cultural gap too vast to bridge. Like the young person’s pop song she’s always listening to, it’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that the world is moving so fast.   

Eventually Xiaoqun’s mother starts to come round and considers going against the social order by marrying again herself despite her supposedly inappropriate age. Marriage, however, seems an unhappy business all round and none of the men we are introduced to are particularly appealing. The men in Xiaoling’s shop bark at their girlfriends and criticise the slutty clothes, or try to harass Xiaoling into dropping the price while her boyfriend hovers in the background and places a territorial hand on her shoulder almost as if he knew why she just gave a quite massive discount on an expensive shirt to the woman currently trying it on for size. Xiaoqun’s mother is divorced, her father having left the family (and an apparently unhappy marriage) for another woman. Yet everyone seems intent on railroading the two women into this culturally demanded alleyway of misery.

For the most part, Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are content to simply ignore the world around them and live peacefully together like two fish in a bowl. Conspiratorially linking hands under the table as Xiaoqun’s mum reels off her marriage spiel and leaning in close to light one cigarette from another, they perhaps take pleasure in mocking the social order directly under her nose while worrying what the fall out might be should the truth be discovered. The relationship is threatened not particularly by the marriage plots, but by the presence of Junjun who places a wedge between the verbally uncommunicative lovers and another burden of secrecy on the already burdened Xiaoqun.

Li concludes by splitting the narrative into its three component strands, opting for a perhaps unwise slide into absurdity as Junjun embarks on a last stand though it does provide an opportunity for another (accidentally?) misogynistic/homophobic remark from a police officer. The film ends on a wedding, at which Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are conspicuously absent despite being expected and as a couple. Perhaps they are just “busy” having recently recovered from their momentary romantic drama, but their failure to appear also reinforces their committed isolation in which they are content (for good or ill) to hide themselves away, existing only for each other.


US release trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Have a Nice Day (大世界 / 好极了, Liu Jian, 2017)

Have a Nice Day poster 1Even when everything is pointless, still you have to try to live. “Spring is spring”, as the opening quote by Leo Tolstoy proclaims and so there is life even among the ruins which, in this case, exist in the mysterious “development zone” somewhere in the modern China. This backstreet noir takes place in a world of near apocalyptic dilapidation though the effect is more one of incompleteness than destruction, as if an over excited city planner had randomly started projects one after another but suddenly tired of each of them. Jack Ma may have affirmed that everyone has a dream in his heart, but the dreams here are small and mostly unattainable, locked into a claustrophobic atmosphere of inescapable despair.

Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), a lowly construction driver, decides to seize his chance of happiness with both hands in lifting a vast sum of cash which belongs to mob boss Uncle Liu (Yang Siming). Uncle Liu, however, is busy torturing his childhood friend for supposedly sleeping with his wife. He sends his best guy, enigmatic hitman Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng), after Zhang but before Skinny can get to him, Xiao Zhang is is picked up by “inventor” Yellow Eyes (Cao Kou) whose X-ray specs have spotted the money and decided it’s too good an opportunity to miss. He takes off with his kind-of-girlfriend (Zheng Yi) who is also the sister-in-law of a guy who works with petty gangster Lao Zhao (Cao Kai) who is the guy Xiao Zhang took the money from in the first place. Meanwhile, the mother of Xiao Zhang’s girlfriend has asked her niece, Ann Ann (Zhu Hong), to have a look into what’s going on with Xiao Zhang because he’s been sending some very suspicious messages.

Everything here is in transit. Hitman Skinny is fond of telling people that he’s “just passing through” but so is everyone else, there is nothing here to stop for, except that it’s impossible to escape. All the significant places are also points of transit or hope for connection – the “Integrity” internet cafe, a “business” hotel, a road which leads nowhere through a landscape permanently “under construction”. Everything is half formed or falling down, the world is indistinct as if it hasn’t discovered its own identity and has tried to cobble something together from the back streets of other cities glanced in violent movies from somewhere far away.

Xiao Zhang, (almost) our hero, is almost the same – he tells Skinny that his dream was to be a man like him rather than the spineless coward he feels himself to be because guys like him always seem so cool in the movies. Doubtless Skinny doesn’t seem so “cool” with his foot on Xiao Zhang’s chest, but Xiao Zhang’s need is as much about escape as it is a matter of practicality. Though the practicality is ironic enough – he wants the money to pay for more plastic surgery for his fiancée whose face has apparently been ruined by a botched operation. Xiao Zhang hopes they can escape to South Korea, world capital of cosmetic procedures, where they can repair what the modern China has destroyed.

It isn’t difficult to see why Have a Nice Day (大世界, Dàshìjiè, previously titled 好极了, Hǎojíle) rubbed the censors the wrong way. Liu’s vision of the China of today is a lawless wasteland in which despair and inertia reign while those of the post ‘80s generation flail wildly in the wind, drinking in overseas culture from Hong Kong and the West and wanting more than their society can give them. In a running joke everyone has a startup idea they’re sure will be the next big thing but when it comes right down to it, even with the money they’ve no idea what they’re doing. Two boys chatting idly about the future find only futility with one lamenting that if he wanted to make it he’d have gone to England to study, only for the other to ask what the point would be now the UK has left Europe. He has a radical startup idea of his own – a restaurant! After all, people will always need to eat. You have to admire his practicality, even if bemoaning his lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, the cousin of Xiao Zhang’s fiancée and her boyfriend, having figured out that Xiao Zhang really does have the money and intending to take it from him, fantasise about finding their own “Shangri-La”. Breaking into a lengthy karaoke-style video sequence, Liu paints a jagged picture of Ann Ann’s visual ideology which quickly descends into a mish-mash of Mao-era socialist propaganda posters and their collections of cheerful country women enthusiastically driving tractors and juggling sheep while posing in traditional Chinese dress with children in neckerchiefs reading improving literature. Everything is for sale, even apparently the innocence of the past. A friend of Lao Zhao’s expounding on the nature of freedom describes it as a three tiered system – the farmer’s market, supermarket, and online, your degree of personal autonomy and happiness reduced to a question of how the place you buy your groceries informs your sense of self worth.

Rampant capitalism has led to moral as well as physical decay as the half-finished buildings collapse under the weight of national hubris, a weathered statue standing in for a real life policeman as the hollow representation of the authority of an absent regime. Animated with an oddly naturalistic minimalism and filled with whimsical absurdity, Have a Nice Day serves as a condemnation of the last 30 years of Chinese history but it does so with a wistful irony. After all, it’s not as if things are much better anywhere else.


Have a Nice Day is released in UK Cinemas on 23rd March courtesy of Mubi. Check the official website to find out where it’s screening near you.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Once Upon a Time (三生三世十里桃花, Zhao Xiaoding & Anthony LaMolinara, 2017)

once upon a time posterTang Qi’s popular online novel Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles Peach Blossoms (三生三世十里桃花, Sān Shēng Sānshì Shílǐ Táohuā) has already been adapted into a phenomenally popular TV drama spanning 58 episodes but the big budget, blockbuster adaptation by Zhang Yimou’s regular cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding making his directorial debut in a co-production with Anthony LaMolinara, thinks it can make do with just 110 minutes. Retitled Once Upon a Time in an obvious nod to the film’s attempt to blend classic Western fairytales by way of Disney with traditional Chinese mythology, Zhao’s approach is a (mostly) family friendly one complete with superfluous CGI characters and a kind of essential innocence in its emotional landscape. Yet it also falls into the traps of many a Chinese fantasy blockbuster in its convoluted, confusing narrative, over reliance on CGI visuals, and host of pretty but bland leading players.

A blindfolded woman bids her lover goodbye as she falls through a storm before landing softly in a beautiful orchard covered in peach blossom to be woken by a friend who tells her she had just been asleep. The woman says she remembers nothing but feels as if she’s been inside a dream. He tells her to let it go, in her dream world she lived a very sad life and it’s better not to remember.

As it turns out the woman is the queen of this realm, Bai Qian (Liu Yifei). She spends her days alternating between frolicking with mystical forest creatures like your average Disney princess (only with less singing) and drinking so heavily she passes out. In fact, drinking is pretty much her only hobby and her general demeanour is moodiness born of being sad over something she does not remember. Technically speaking, she’s been engaged to a mysterious prince from an undersea kingdom for quite sometime but has no desire to marry, firstly out of the aforementioned sadness, but also out of a preference for independence, and the fact that the prince is apparently 70,000 years younger than she is and she thinks it’s inappropriate. Nevertheless, she goes (blindfolded due to a problem with her oversensitive eyes) and meets Ye Hua (Yang Yang) and his son Ah Li (Peng Zisu) who immediately recognise her as “Su Su” – the boy’s mother who died 300 years ago.

Though Once Upon a Time is based on a fairly recent novel and draws much of its inspiration from Western fairytales, some familiarity with Chinese mythology will undoubtedly help. Bai Qian is apt to suddenly morph into a white nine tailed fox while her friend Zhe Yan (Luo Jin) is a glowing, fiery phoenix of the battlefield and though the gods possess a number of surprising powers from the ability to spontaneously generate fire or chop vegetables in mid-air, they fight the way any mortal would only with much more destructive effects.

At heart, apt phrase as that is, Once Upon a Time is an epic love story in which two souls wait and search for each other through eons, pushing and probing for recognition all while failing to grasp that which seems to exist between them. The title of the novel is almost a spoiler in itself as it details the passage through three worlds and three lives which has brought Bai Qian and Ye Hua to this particular impasse of awkward, screwball romance. A repeated phrase between the lovers, the Ten Miles of Peach Blossom is a byword for excess – what is the point of ten miles of peach blossoms, when a single petal is enough? Ye Hua affirms he’s found his petal already, though she refuses to come down from her tree. Bai Qian is the obstinate one, pining for a lost love and, perhaps, one she doesn’t remember but there are things Ye Hua has hidden from himself too.

As much about identities in flux eventually settling in love, Once Upon a Time also has its standard fairytale tropes from the “ugly” sisters at the beginning to the wicked step-mother stand in Su Jin (Li Chun) and her machinations to get rid of Su Su/Bai Qian by means of her wicked white tiger. Bai Qian and Ye Hua must come to know all of themselves before recognising their opposing number, seeing straight through the fog of love to its shining core. Despite the depth of its ideas, Once Upon a Time fails to move beyond its fairytale setting, caught between the bright and colorful world of a peach blossom orchard filled with adorable woodland creatures, and the darkness of the woman who lives inside it, slowly killing herself with drink to blot out the inability to remember long buried pain. Intermittently charming, Once Upon a Time is among the better fantasy films emerging from mainland China in recent times but unlike its forgetful lovers never quite manages to recover its heart.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

League of Gods (3D封神榜, Koan Hui & Vernie Yeung , 2016)

league of godsOften, people will try to convince of the merits of something or other by considerably over compensating for its faults. Therefore when you see a movie marketed as the X-ian version of X, starring just about everyone and with a budget bigger than the GDP of a small nation you should learn to be wary rather than impressed. If you’ve followed this very sage advice, you will fare better than this reviewer and not find yourself parked in front of a cinema screen for two hours of non-sensical European fantasy influenced epic adventure such as is League of Gods (3D封神榜, 3D Fēng Shén Bǎng).

Based on a classic Chinese text – the Ming Dynasty epic Investiture of the Gods by Xu Zhonglin, League of Gods begins with its despotic monarch, King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-fei) and the story of how it was he came to lose his soul to Black Dragon and fall under spell of the nine-tailed fox, Daji (an underused Fan Bingbing). The couple have kidnapped Wizard Jiang (Jet Li), who may have been the only one with the knowledge to end their demonic rule – if it weren’t for the fact he’s subject to an anti-ageing curse and keeps regressing each time he uses his powers. Nevertheless, a group of warriors from Xiqi attempt to rescue Jiang and a group of orphan children who are also being held prisoner though their partial success leads them to undertake a new mission to find the Sword of Light which may finally help them to cut through the darkness and restore their kingdom to glory.

The primary bearer of this quest is Lei (Jacky Heung) who is second heir to the Wing Kingdom though also an embarrassment to his father because unlike his countrymen, he’s never been able to find his wings and fly like the rest of his brethren. Jiang entrusts him with three bags to help on his journey, one of which contains “magic grass” (ahem!) which is basically a healthier version of Clippy, the second a CGI baby version of once ruthless warrior, Naza, and the third a baby Merman who had his spine removed by Naza to stop him growing up and just wants to go home. Lei runs into automaton spy and tragic love interest Blue Butterfly (Angelababy) who does at least lend a degree of pathos to the proceedings and Louis Koo also turns up riding a giant panther, which is quite a ride, it has to be said.

The biggest problem facing League of Gods is one common to every fantasy film – that is, constructing a fantastical world which is still 100% internally consistent and completely believable throughout. League of Gods throws so much information out so quickly that it’s impossible to keep a handle on everything that’s going on, let alone try to work out how all of these various warring kingdoms fit together. There is a lot of story to go around, and directors Koan Hui and Vernie Yeung have recruited a host of China’s biggest stars to help tell it. This obviously means that some stars are appearing for mere minutes with barely anything to do save show their face, making an already bloated premise overloaded beyond any sustainable level.

Narrative excitement has largely been sidelined in favour of visual flair but League of Gods is constantly let down by poor quality CGI some of which might look more at home in a late ‘90s video game. League of Gods operates as a kind of hybrid movie, mixing heavy CGI animation with live action actors but can’t decide just how po-faced it really wants to be. Lei is accompanied on his quest by a fearsome warrior, Naza, apparently an arrogant and dangerous criminal who has been imprisoned in the body of a toddler. This CGI baby grins, burps, farts, and high kicks his way out of trouble in a decidedly bizarre fashion with his grown up language offered from a cute baby face. Naza is countered by his sometime enemy – an adorable Merman baby who just misses his dad but seems to have no other purpose so it’s a mystery why Jiang gave Lei this particular bag. Magic Grass is obviously an advisory figure, but is an apt way to try and explain what’s going on.

League of Gods moves from set piece to set piece with some muddled character development along the way as Lei finds love and develops his wings but never makes any kind of attempt at unifying its disparate plot strands. Squandering the talents of its extremely high level of A-list stars, League of Gods relies of campy fun to get by but is far too serious to make the most of its over the top potential. Disappointingly, after it’s intense build up League of Gods refuses to stage its finale – ending on a cliff hanger which is heralded by the most ridiculous evil laugh offered by a despot clutching a baby which is actually the regressed form of his rival and a formerly powerful wizard. It sounds good, but it isn’t. Read the small print, sign with caution.


US release trailer (English subtitles)