Once upon a Time
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 106 mins.
Director: Zhao Xiaoding 赵小丁.
Feature version of a much-adapted novel tries to cram too much in the pot, and is never really involving.
Ancient China. In the magical land of Qingqiu, royal immortal Bai Qian (Liu Yifei) lives independently with animals and various creatures, away from the Palace of Heaven. Aged 140,000 years, the daughter of Heavenly Emperor Bai Zhi, she is happily unmarried, though her father has announced her eventual marriage to Crown prince Ye Hua (Yang Yang), who’s 90,000 years younger than her. While attending a birthday party for the Eastern Sea Emperor’s son, she meets a young boy, Dumpling (Peng Zisu), whom the queen of the Demon Clan (Gu Xuan) – sworn enemies of the Kingdom of Heaven – tries to lure away. Bai Qian fights her off, and then learns the boy, whose real name is Li, is the son of Ye Hua. When Ye Hua arrives, he recognises Bai Qian as Susu, Li’s late mother, who bears a striking resemblance. Bai Qian is frosty, as she finds Ye Hua’s way of speaking to her disrespectful, given that she is his senior. Back in Qingqiu, Bai Qian’s friend and drinking partner Zhe Yan (Luo Jin) explains that Susu was a mortal who died 300 years ago. When Ye Hua suddenly turns up with his son in Qingqiu, and insists on living with her to see whether they can fall in love, Bai Qian reluctantly agrees; she discovers, however, that Ye Hua is a great cook. When Su Jin (Li Chun), a female courtier at the Palace of Heaven who’s long fancied Ye Hua, tries to break up their menage by taking Li back, she’s unsuccessful. Angry, Su Jin visits the Demon Clan queen in her Purple Palace and proposes an alliance in helping her to kidnap Li so the queen can resurrect her own dead son with his blood. Meanwhile, Ye Hua takes Bai Qian to Junji mountain – where the mortal and immortal worlds are at their closest – and explains how he first met and fell in love with Susu (Liu Yifei). When they return to Qingqiu, the Demon Queen attacks and, during the fighting, Ye Hua discovers that Bai Qian is actually Si Yin, 17th disciple of Mo Yuan (Yang Yang) who imprisoned the Demon Emperor Qing Cang (Yan Yikuan) in the Eastern Magic Bell 70,000 years ago during the Demon Clan’s rebellion but ended up having to trade his soul to make the bell secure; since then Si Yin has kept him preserved in a block of ice. The wedding of Ye Hua and Bai Qian is officially announced, but Su Jin sows seeds of doubt in Bai Qian’s mind by telling her more about Ye Hua and Susu’s story. Bai Qian confronts Ye Hua during the actual wedding and then storms out. Meanwhile, the ice covering Mo Yuan has almost melted, as he recovers his soul in one piece.
Already adapted into a manga, a videogame, a 2016 online drama, a play (to open in Shanghai in Oct 2017) and a lavish TV drama series shown earlier this year, the 2009 novel by Sichuan-born writer Tang Qi Gongzi 唐七公子 – her first full-length one – finally reaches the big screen as well, but with mixed results. Though most roles are strongly cast, and actress Liu Yifei 刘亦菲 is surprisingly characterful in the lead, Once upon a Time 三生三世十里桃花 suffers from all the usual problems of condensing sprawling fantasy/martial arts novels 仙侠小说 into running times of two hours or less – such as massive compression of plot lines and characters’ stories, and a lack of real architecture as the story jumps here and there with no natural continuity. Good-looking, in a cloud-spun, fairytale-like way, it marks the directing debut of Beijing-born Zhao Xiaoding 赵小丁, d.p. for Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 since Hero 英雄 (2002), with “associate direction” and visual effects credited to Hollywood CG animator Anthony LaMolinara (Hollow Man, 2000; Spider-Man 2, 2004).
The more experienced names among the four writers are Li Han 李含 and Liu Han 刘含, who’ve worked with Time‘s producer, film-maker Zhang Yibai 张一白, on his slick romantic drama Fleet of Time 勿勿那年 (2014) as well as on several of his TVDs. Whether or not Hong Kong supervising editor Xu Hongyu 许宏宇 [Derek Hui] took an axe to the material or not, the finished product, running only an hour-and-three-quarters, couldn’t hope but be sketchily developed, given the novel’s complexity. But instead of completely re-imagining the material for the big screen, the writers have tried to cram in as many flashbacks as possible, to the point where the characters’ actions seem to be guided less by their current emotions than by their backstories, which are only gradually drip-fed to the audience. This won’t matter so much for fans of the novel or TVD, who already know the story, but it does make it difficult to empathise with the protagonists, and partly accounts for the film’s emotional coolness.
The other problem is that the film has problems establishing a consistent tone, starting out as a girly fairytale set in a magical land of cute CGI animals, then humorously riffing on the idea via some unconventional situations, then gradually expanding into a giant VFX extravaganza as the lovers are caught up in a battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell. VFX overkill in the final furlong is a regular fault of Mainland blockbusters but, when Time reaches that point about 70 minutes in, the plot has been so dense that the film already feels too long. It’s also come a long way from the fairytale-like opening, whose atmosphere it unsuccessfully tries to recapture in the final minutes.
Despite these faults, Time is generally well cast, with Liu especially good as the unconventional and independent princess, who likes a drink or three, plus a good lie-in afterwards, and has no time for royal protocol. A variable actress who has a tendency towards blankness (e.g. White Vengeance 鸿门宴, 2011), Liu, 29, really hits her stride here, on a par with her performance in the 2011 version of A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂. As a jealous love-rival at court, Li Chun 李纯, 29, who had small roles in two Zhang Yimou films (The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗, 2011; Coming Home 归来, 2014) makes a strong impression, as does foxy dancer-turned-actress Gu Xuan 顾璇 (Disney High School Musical China 歌舞青春, 2010; The Flowers of War), also 29, as the evil Demon Clan queen.
Unfortunately, the film lacks similar acting heft on the male side, with Yang Yang 杨洋, 25, who was okay as the inventor cousin in Zhang Yibai’s I Belonged to You 从你的全世界路过 (2016), cast beyond his range as the film’s conflicted royal hero, looking pretty but one-dimensional, especially opposite Liu. Comedian Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing 叫兽易小星, who directed Journey to the West spoof Surprise 万万没想到 (2015), voices an annoyingly cute CG thing called Migu, which is surplus to the plot and thankfully disappears quite soon.
Visual effects are rather corny and lumpy but are fun in a fairytale way until the overload in the final 20 minutes. Zhao’s photography and the art direction by Liu Shan 刘山 contrast the gleaming white expanses of the Palace of Heaven with the earthier, nature-inspired colours of the heroine’s land, Qingqiu. The magical-romantic score is effective and above-average for these kinds of fantasies but can’t overcome the film’s central coolness.
The Chinese title refers to the heroine’s wish “in three lives and three worlds for 10 li of peach blossom”. The excellent 58-part TV drama series (see poster, left), known as Eternal Love 三生三世十里桃花, starred Mainland actress Yang Mi 杨幂 and Taiwan actor Zhao Youting 赵又廷 [Mark Chao] and was broadcast from late Jan 2017 onwards, some six months prior to the film’s release. The novel by Tang Qi Gongzi – pen name for Ji Qinqin 吉琴琴, 32 – is known as To the Sky Kingdom in its English translation. In its first two weeks of Mainland release, the 3-D film has scored a very handsome RMB527 million.
Presented by Alibaba Pictures Group (CN), Ruyi Films (CN), Yuekai Entertainment (CN), RunKing PictureS (CN). Produced by Alibaba Pictures Group (CN), Shanghai Ruyi Entertainment (CN), Beijing Enlight Pictures (CN), Beijing Ruyi Xinxin Film Investment (CN).
Script: Li Han, Liu Han, Mai Ling, Zhang Yaliang. Script advice: Fan Suhua. Novel: Tang Qi Gongzi. Photography: Zhao Xiaoding, Xie Tianxiang. Editing: Xu Hongyu [Derek Hui], Fang Yuan. Music: Lao Zai [Loudboy], Li Ye, Chen Guangrong [Comfort Chan]. Art direction: Liu Shan. Styling: Xu Jianshu [Lawrence Xu]. Sound: Tao Jing. Action: Li Donghao. Visual effects: Anthony LaMolinara. Associate direction: Anthony LaMolinara.
Cast: Liu Yifei (Bai Qian; Susu; Siyin), Yang Yang (Ye Hua; Mo Yuan), Luo Jin (Zhe Yan), Yan Yikuan (Qing Cang), Li Chun (Su Jin), Gu Xuan (Demon Clan queen), Chen Peisi (Eastern Sea king), Peng Zisu (Li/Dumpling, Ye Hua’s son), Zhang Yaqin (Nainai), Jianshou Yi Xiaoxing [Yi Zhenxing] (voice of Migu, Bai Qian’s housekeeper).
Release: China, 3 Aug 2017.