Hong Kong/China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 124 mins.
Directors: Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan], Gao Linbao 高林豹.
Unfocused, slackly directed fantasy with just a few good individual performances to its merit.
Ancient China. En route to the capital to sit for the imperial exams, young scholar Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao) and his servant Hou Xia (Baobei’er) become victims of an attempted robbery by swordsman Meng Longtan (Zou Zhaolong). The quarrelling trio end up in a Daoist hillside temple where monk Budong (Zeng Zhiwei) calms them all down. Zhu Xiaolian is intrigued by a mural depicting six beautiful women, and suddenly one of them, Mudan (Zheng Shuang), comes to life. Entranced, Zhu Xiaolian follows her through a tunnel to the Land of Ten Thousand Blossoms, where men are not allowed on pain of death. Finding himself in front of a large palace building, Zhu Xiaolian initially hides behind Mudan but, as the Queen (Yan Ni) arrives for the daily assembly of the chief fairies, her deputy Shaoyao (Sun Li) impulsively hides him beneath her own skirts. The assembly is interrupted by the appearance of Stone Monster, who is in love with the fairies, but he is killed by the Queen and her female soldiers. Later, hiding out in Shaoyao’s quarters, Zhu Xiaolian hears her confessing her loneliness to her mirror; after spotting him, Shaoyao is angry but finally agrees to take him to Mudan. Suddenly, however, Zhu Xiaolian finds himself back in the Daoist temple with his servant, the swordsman and the monk. Fearing Mudan may be in danger, Zhu Xiaolian wills himself, Hou Xia and Meng Longtan back to the magical land, where they’re arrested by the Queen’s soldiers and taken to the palace. Though she herself has sworn off men because of a betrayal earlier in her life, the Queen allows the three to stay, as long as each marries a fairy. Meng Longtan chooses the sad-looking Yunmei (Liu Yan) but quickly dumps her for Dingxiang (Mo Xiaoqi), who encourages him to sleep around. Feeling sorry for her, Hou Xia chooses Yunmei. Shaoyao, who’s upset that Zhu Xiaolian is still thinking of Mudan, tries to persuade him to abandon his search for her. However, he finally agrees to marry Mudan’s best friend, Cuizhu (Xie Nan), so he can stay on and try to find her. He then discovers Mudan has been imprisoned by the Queen in the fiery hell of Seventh Heaven.
A way over-long fairytale romance that can’t decide really what it is, Mural 画壁 shows Hong Kong director Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan] still stuck in the creative impasse that blighted his Painted Skin 画皮 (2008) but without even that film’s well-staged action sequences to divert attention from the wobbly drama. For a big-budget fantasy, Mural has plenty to divert the eye, with the striking sets by Hong Kong’s He Jianxiong 何剑雄 [Cyrus Ho] (especially the fairies’ large library) and the pastel-coloured, filligree costumes and discreet fairy make-up by Wu Baoling 吴宝玲 [Bobo Ng]. But it’s distractingly weak on a technical level: so-so visual effects, TV drama-like fighting scenes, and a score by Japan’s Fujiwara Ikuro 藤原育郎 that’s okay with romance but has no idea how to accompany action. The visuals by ace Taiwan d.p. Li Pingbin 李屏宾 [Mark Lee] are solid without having any personal signature. However, the most damaging aspect is the direction: Chen and Hong Kong co-director Gao Linbao 高林豹 (one of the two co-directors on Painted Skin) seem unable to impart any dynamism to the personal drama, which, as things progress, is revealed to be the core of the movie.
With 21st-century technology, Chen and Gao appear to want to revisit the established Chinese genre of the fairy-and-scholar love story but to give it a different spin. The problem is that it’s difficult to see what that spin is: the film swings between Hong Kong comedy – Hong Kong veteran Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang] miscast as a grinning Daoist monk, plus some marital comedy of errors – serious romance, and fantasy sequences – everyone riding a giant sea-turtle – that are more suited to a kid’s movie.
For a film that’s essentially about unrequited love and the tricks that Eros can play on both humans and non-humans, the love story between the scholar played by Deng Chao 邓超 and the fairy Shaoyao played by Sun Li 孙俪 should drive the drama. But good as (real-life Mainland couple) Deng and Sun are – especially the latter, in her most substantial movie role to date – the untidy script constantly shifts the audience’s attention with a large cast of other characters and numerous subplots. With half-an-hour taken out and the focus tightened around the leads, Mural might work a little better. But at two hours, and with most of the development in the final reels, it’s both lopsidedly constructed and dramatically sluggish.
Several individual performances, however, are fine. Alongside Sun and Deng, Baobei’er 宝贝儿 is likeable as the scholar’s love-shy servant and plays well against Liu Yan 柳岩, a well-known TV presenter cast against type as a quiet, lovelorn maiden. Taiwan’s Zou Zhaolong 邹兆龙 [Collin Chou] and Beijing-born model-actress Mo Xiaoqi 莫小棋 (Ocean Flame 一半海水一半火焰, 2008) have more extrovert chemistry together that livens up the movie in brief patches, and big-screen Mainland newcomer Zheng Shuang 郑爽 has a fragile freshness that’s just right for Mudan, the scholar’s initial love interest. The biggest disappointment is Yan Ni 闫妮, a normally strong-charactered actress (Cow 斗牛, 2009) who swans around as the fairy Queen but never makes her seem either commanding or sympathetic. The sad fact is that the same could be said for the film as a whole.
Presented by Beijing Enlight Pictures (CN), Top Gun Creative (HK). Produced by Top Gun Creative (HK).
Script: Liu Haoliang, Wang Simin, Tan Guangyuan. Photography: Li Pingbin [Mark Lee]. Editing: Chen Qihe [Chan Ki-hop]. Music: Fujiwara Ikuro. Production design: He Jianxiong [Cyrus Ho]. Costume design: Wu Baoling [Bobo Ng]. Sound: Du Duzhi. Action: Gu Xuanzhao. Visual effects: Christopher Bremble (Base FX).
Cast: Deng Chao (Zhu Xiaolian), Sun Li (Shaoyao), Yan Ni (Queen), Zou Zhaolong [Collin Chou] (Meng Longtan, swordsman), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Budong, monk), Zheng Shuang (Mudan), Baobei’er (Hou Xia, Zhu Xiaolian’s servant), An Zhijie [Andy On] (Golden Warrior, queen’s servant), Xie Nan (Cuizhu), Liu Yan (Yunmei), Mo Xiaoqi (Dingxiang), Bao Wenjing (Baihe), Xia Yiyao (Xuelian), Lan Yingying (Haitang), Du Shiwu (housekeeper), Weng Jing (female captain).
Release: Hong Kong, 13 Oct 2011; China, 29 Sep 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 29 Sep 2011.)