Legend of the Naga Pearls
China/Hong Kong, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D (China only), 107 mins.
Director: Yang Lei 杨磊.
Unoriginal but highly enjoyable fantasy-adventure, boosted by terrific leads and a light, jokey tone.
Ancient China. Once upon a time the Winged Tribe lived in the city of Uranopolis but, after being defeated in a war with the Human Tribe, gradually lost its ability to fly. In present-day Uranopolis, self-described “master thief” Ni Kongkong (Wang Dalu) is given an imperial commission to steal a jewel, the Eye in the Sky, from Jun (Zhou Yiwei), a debauched aristocrat who is going to show it off during a gathering of friends and family, as it marks the defeat of the Winged Tribe by the Human Tribe. After breaking into Jun’s mansion, however, Ni Kongkong is interrupted by two other thieves, He Ying (Jiang Luxia) and Lei Bao (Shi Yanneng), sent by Xue Lie (Ren Dahua), a royal descendant of the Winged Tribe, who has vowed to avenge his people’s humiliation. Also after the Eye is a rogue Uranopolis constable, Feng Xiao (Liu Junxiao); in the resulting confusion the entire Jun family and their guests are slaughtered. The emperor (Hu Bing) tells his police force to investigate the case. Although she’s good at her job, Hei Yu (Zhang Tian’ai), who is descended fom the Winged Tribe, is stood down by her chief, as Feng Xiao is her elder brother and suspected of somehow being involved in the theft. The device needed to trigger the power of the Eye is in a magic box on Lingyi mountain. Ni Kongkong is about to steal it when he’s interrupted first by a crazed Feng Xiao and then by Hei Yu who tries to protect Ni Kongkong. When the main police force arrives, Hei Yu and Ni Kongkong are arrested and taken back to Uranopolis – though Ni Kongkong has hidden the box about his person. The two are rescued from prison by the mysterious Ge Li (Sheng Guansen), who will only say he’s helping his father, a palace official, to find Xue Lie. Ni Kongkong offers to help, as Xue Lie killed his parents. While the threesome are escaping from Uranopolis they bump into Lei Bao, whom Xue Lie has sent to find Ni Kongkong; but they manage to fight him off and escape in a boat. They all want to destroy the secret weapon inside the magic box but the only person who can open the box – apart from Xue Lie – is in Night Marsh Cavern, a den of thieves and pirates. Hei Yu leads them there and en route regains the power of flight. However, when the three arrive at Night Marsh Cavern, and look for the Old Ape Man (Wang Xun) to open the box, cavern leader Jiang Chengzi (Zhao Jian) proves a stumbling block.
Though it’s highly entertaining and never takes itself very seriously, it has to be said that Legend of the Naga Pearls 鲛珠传 doesn’t score very high for originality, apart from being the first movie set in the mythical Chinese world of Novoland 九州. Basically it’s the usual tomb raider/fantasy/martial arts mash-up, with heroic, cheeky and CGI characters in a good vs evil warring universe and lots of vaguely Central Asian colour. The plot – centred on a magic box that can unleash a jewel’s huge power – is hardly multi-layered and there’s little detail about Novoland’s complex universe. But Legend succeeds where so many splashy costume spectaculars have failed – in its characters and casting. Produced by Hong Kong veteran Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan] but directed by Mainlander Yang Lei 杨磊 – in his feature-film debut after a decade in TV drama series – it’s a rare example of a fantasy adventure in which the visual effects are at the service of the characters rather than the other way round. For that alone, it rates an extra point.
The mythical world of Novoland was created a decade or so ago by a team of seven fantasy writers (including Jiang Nan 江南, Jinhezai 今何在, Zhan’an 斩鞍 and Tang Que 唐缺) as a Chinese response to The Lord of the Rings; several other writers, such as Tang Qi 唐七, have also set stories in the world. Naga comes on the heels of two TV drama series based in Novoland – Huaxu Yin: City of Desperate Love 华胥引 绝爱之城 (2015) and Novoland: The Castle in the Sky 九州 天空城 (2016), the latter produced by Shanghai Film Media Asia which also funded Naga. (Naga‘s script also borrows elements from the two Novoland books, Huaxu Yin 华胥引 by Tang Qi and Sky City 九州 天空城 by Tang Que, from which the TVDs were adapted.) In addition, Naga‘s director, Yang Lei 杨磊, was chief director on Castle in the Sky, and Lu Beike 陆贝珂 oversaw visual effects for both. So the film is partly a family affair.
Naga‘s two leads, though fast-rising, are hardly established names. Taiwan’s Wang Dalu 王大陆, 26, was propelled to the bigtime by high-school movie Our Times 我的少女时代 (2015) – the year’s box-office champion in Taiwan and subsequently taking a handsome RMB359 million in the Mainland – in which he played a school bully who’s (kind of) reformed by a ditzy fellow student. The role made good use of Wang’s rubbery features (shades of his compatriot Chen Bolin 陈柏霖) and facial gymnastics – fully exploited in Naga, where he’s again in a comically cocky role as a self-anointed “master thief”.
With less background in TVD and none in films, his co-star Zhang Tian’ai 张天爱, also 26, sprung to instant fame by playing the lead in the hit online costume comedy Go Princess Go 太子妃升职记 (2015), as a man who’s transported back to Ancient China and ends up in a woman’s body. After a notable film debut the following year, as the radio-station intern in I Belonged to You 从你的全世界路过 (2016), she’s had a couple of supporting roles that haven’t used her especially well (including the putative girlfriend in Father and Son 父子雄兵, 2017); Naga, however, fully mines her combination of hey-wow looks and comic-romantic bravado that helped make Princess a success. In Naga she not only looks convincing as a stern swordswoman in black but can equally vamp it up in a red dress while drunkenly seducing a pirate leader.
The teaming of Wang and Zhang has sparks flying from the start, with him playing the young super-thief as a cheeky chappie (“I have a plan…a perfect plan!”) and her playing the constable as a humourless swordswoman he’s always trying to embarrass. The sexual tension between them, though hardly original, is one of the film’s delights, lightly handled and with room for some genuine romance in the later stages as both drop their facades. Wang’s broad Taiwan accent amid a largely Mainland cast also emphasises his outsider status, as an unprincipled thief who doesn’t take sides. The perpetual bickering between the two leads keeps things light, as does the action (niftily staged by stunt ace Gu Xuanzhao 谷轩昭, Mermaid 美人鱼, 2016, Wu Kong 悟空传, 2017) that marbles the film from start to finish rather than just being confined to big setpieces.
In a rare prosthetics role, Hong Kong veteran Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] is almost unrecognisable as the Winged Tribe villain, popping up now and then to growl lines about destroying the humans. As one of his enforcers, petite Mainland martial artist Jiang Luxia 蒋璐霞 is also so heavily covered in prosthetics and CGI that she’s unrecognisable, though she gets some memorable bursts of action acrobatics – more so than fellow martial-arts star Shi Yanneng 释彦能 as a fellow enforcer. Also heavily prosthetised is goofy comic Wang Xun 王迅, here as a wise old seer called Ape Man. Among the rest of the cast, the only one to give Wang a run for his money in the comic stakes is TV/theatre actor Zhao Jian 赵健 (from Novoland: The Castle in the Sky), terrific as the devil-may-care pirate chief.
Though directed by someone from TV drama, and lead written by Hong Kong TVD veteran Zhang Tan 张炭, Naga has a thoroughly cinematic flow, aided by the above-average, unusually descriptive score by Japan’s Fujiwara Ikuro 藤原育郎 (Mural 画壁, 2011). The film’s expansive look (dark to bright to magical), courtesy Hong Kong veteran d.p. Huang Yuetai 黄岳泰 [Arthur Wong] and p.d. Mai Guoqiang 麦国强 [Kenneth Mak], doesn’t dwarf the characters, and ditto the VFX, which are simply just fun additions rather than the film’s sine qua non (such as the flying creatures near the end). The only lapse in that department is the thief’s annoying companion, a CGI pangolin which is a cliched addition for younger viewers.
Mainland box office was only a ho-hum RMB114 million.
Presented by Shanghai Film Group (CN), Shanghai Film Media Asia (CN), Media Asia Film (HK).
Script: Zhang Tan, Xu Zhaoqing, Yang Lei. Photography: Huang Yuetai [Arthur Wong]. Editing: Feng Qihuan. Music: Fujiwara Ikuro. Production design: Mai Guoqiang [Kenneth Mak]. Art direction: Lin Weijian. Styling: Liang Tingting. Sound: Guo Xiaoshi, Zhang Hui, Steve Burgess, Dylan Burgess. Action: Gu Xuanzhao. Visual effects: Lu Beike, Yao Qi, Hong Yiyun (VHQ Beijing Digital Media, Base). Special effects make-up: Joel Harlow, Xiao Jin (Morphology). Postproduction supervision: Yang Fan. Executive direction: Zhang Lindong, Zhang Jinqing, Pan Yu.
Cast: Wang Dalu (Ni Kongong), Zhang Tian’ai (Hei Yu/Raven), Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (Xue Lie/Vlad), Sheng Guansen (Ge Li/He Li, prince), Zhao Jian (Jiang Chengzi), Liu Junxiao (Feng Xiao), Shi Yanneng (Lei Bao, Xue Lie’s male enforcer), Hu Bing (emperor), He Sui (Fei Long), Jiang Luxia (He Ying, Xue Lie’s female enforcer), Du Yiheng (Yang Zhenhu), Wang Xun (Old Ape Man), Zhou Yiwei (Jun), Meng Zhaozhong (chief enunch).
Release: China, 11 Aug 2017; Hong Kong, 17 Aug 2017.