The Thousand Faces of Dunjia
Hong Kong/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D (China only), 112 mins.
Director: Yuan Heping 袁和平.
Pulpy, old-style Hong Kong costume action is rescued by spunky playing from Mainland actress Ni Ni.
Henan province, central China, about 1,000 years ago. Chapter 1: In This World Nothing Is True 第一回 世上无真相. After proving his strength in a weightlifting bet, Dao Yichang (Li Zhiting), a rookie member of Kaifeng city’s constabulary, is sent out by his wary superiors to find and arrest some wanted men. En route he bumps into Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni), a senior member of the demon-hunting Wuyin Clan that was once all but wiped out; using many disguises, she’s been hunting a shape-shifting, three-eyed goldfish monster that is linked to Red Eyes, a demon that wants to control the universe through a combination of a cosmic divination system (qímén dùnjiǎ 奇门遁甲) and the super-powerful God Machine. Iron Butterfly finally catches the goldfish monster in the room of a shape-shifting courtesan (Liu Yan), where she bumps into Dao Yichang again; when he tries to arrest her, she slips away. Chapter 2: Wuyin Clan in Trouble 第二回 雾隐门有难. In the clan’s underground lair, senior Big Brother (Wu Bai) warns Iron Butterfly that the goldfish monster allowed itself to be caught to lead Red Eyes to their HQ. As Iron Butterfly assembles members of the clan to fight the demons, Big Brother goes ahead on a personal mission to Luoyang city. Chapter 3: Qimen Seeks Dunjia 第三回 奇门寻遁甲. In Chang’an city [modern-day Xi’an], in neighbouring Shaanxi province, young doctor Zhuge Qingyun (Da Peng), posing as a blind medical student, gains access to the Jingshi medical academy and an underground cell where undiagnosable patients are kept. As he expects, a nameless young orphan is held there, whom he dubs Little Circle after a red mark on her arm; she’s girlish and friendly, but when he gives her some food, she suddenly shape-shifts. Meanwhile, Kaifeng city is attacked by Red Eyes, who levels the imperial founder’s temple, prompting Iron Butterfly to suspect that Red Eyes us after something below it. She and two other clan members find a huge underground chamber there, with the skeletons of hundreds of previous Wuyin Clan members, overseen by a large, chained iron ball that seems to be “alive”. Dao Yichang, who’s been investigating the destroyed temple site on behalf of the city’s constabulary, falls into the chamber just as Red Eyes arrives and activates the iron ball, which morphs into the demon White Tiger. Iron Butterfly, the two clan members and Dao Yichang manage to escape, though the last loses a leg and an arm in the process. They’re later joined by Zhuge Qingyun, who’s returned from his mission to Chang’an and introduces Little Circle as the future leader of the Wuyin Clan, as denoted by the mark on her arm. He describes how she morphed into a giant phoenix in front of him. Iron Butterfly, who’s jealous of Little Circle’s affection for her childhood friend Zhuge Qingyun, is sceptical but agrees to look after both her and the wounded Dao Yichang for the time being. Though clan rules forbid her showing any outward affection, the tomboyish Iron Butterfly has begun to take a liking to Dao Yichang. The whole group then receives its orders to meet Big Brother in Luoyang. Chapter 4: The Five Clans Meet the God Machine 第四回 五派会神机. At the Longmen Grottoes, just outside Luoyang, leaders of the five major clans compete for the God Machine brought there by the venerable Heavenly Operator; however, Red Eyes and White Tiger steal it from under their noses. Meanwhile, to avoid a sandstorm, the Wuyin Clan members stop over in a cave, where Little Circle demonstrates her shape-shifting and convinces Iron Butterfly she’s the real thing. Later, in Luoyang, Little Circle uses her regenerative powers to restore Dao Yichang’s limbs, just before the five clan leaders attack. Chapter 5: Wuyin Exterminates a Clan 第五回 雾隐灭门. Iron Butterfly & Co. are eventually rescued by Big Brother and Little Circle, though the latter dies as a result. Afterwards, Big Brother inducts Dao Yichang into the Wuyin Clan. Chapter 6: Dunjia Redux 第六回 遁甲再现. The big showdown with Red Eyes and White Tiger.
Hong Kong action veteran Yuan Heping 袁和平, 73, officially gets the directing credit but it’s the fingerprints of his only slightly younger colleague Xu Ke 徐克 [Tsui Hark], 67, billed as producer and lead writer, that are all over The Thousand Faces of Dunjia 奇门遁甲. A VFX-heavy costume fantasy about the underground Wuyin Clan battling monsters and demons, it’s way better than Yuan’s dull China/US-pudding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny 卧虎藏龙 青冥宝剑 (2016) and about on a par with Sword Master 三少爷的剑 (2016), the last film Xu produced and co-wrote. Compared with Xu’s own directing credits, it’s generally on a level with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back 西游2 伏妖篇 (2017), in which his restless, effects-driven, episodic style clashed with the subtler, more easygoing attitude of producer-writer Zhou Xingchi 周星驰 [Stephen Chow]. Either as director or producer/writer these past few years, Xu has yet to re-scale the heights of The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D 智取威虎山 (2014), his best film in ages.
Dunjia uses the same Chinese title as The Miracle Fighters 奇门遁甲 (1982), a run-of-the-mill costume action-comedy also directed by Yuan more than three decades ago, but that’s all the two films have in common. The 2017 Dunjia is majority Mainland funded and cast, and with a budget (RMB250 million) and visual flash (60% using green screen) to take on other Mainland blockbusters. But despite a lead cast including local comedian/director Da Peng 大鹏 (Jianbing Man 煎饼侠, 2015; City of Rock 缝纫机乐队, 2017), spunky actress Ni Ni 妮妮 (The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗, 2011; Suddenly Seventeen 28岁未成年, 2016) and elfin Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨 (SoulMate 七月与安生, 2016; This Is Not What I Expected 喜欢你, 2017), the film conjured up only a so-so RMB300 million, way below the other main end-of-year fantasy, Legend of the Demon Cat 妖猫传 (RMB520 million-plus), directed by Chen Kaige 陈凯歌.
Dunjia has an unashamedly pulpy feel – especially in its corny wire-work and low-rent VFX – that harks back to Hong Kong costume action films of the 1980s and early 1990s, the heyday of both Yuan and Xu. In truth, the cartoony effects are just fine in a film whose script has little coherency anyway, as the characters move from one coincidence to another amid yards of hocus-pocus about cosmology, the universe and good vs. evil. (The Chinese title, which literally means “Strange Gates, Escaping Techniques”, refers to an ancient form of metaphysical divination, still used today.) The structure, too, is typical of most of Xu’s films, with little connecting material between the setpieces and the viewer left in the dark a lot of the time. Much of Wuyin Clan’s background, and that of its surviving members, is unexplained, and the whole strand of Da Peng’s doctor tracking down the clan’s new, future leader seems less important than the opportunities it gives Da Peng and Zhou for naughty comedy.
That’s all a shame as, when the characters occcasionally pause for breath (in a cave during a sandstorm, in an inn in Luoyang), the script does try to develop some of the relationships, especially the simmering attraction between Ni’s warrior and Da Peng’s doctor, her jealousy over his relationship with Zhou’s girl-woman, and her own gradual liking for Li’s klutzy constable. All of that could have been a rich recipe for a powerful finale, but Xu’s constant desire to press on with the action robs the film of any emotional underpinnings on the scale of, say, Legend of the Naga Pearls 鲛珠传 (2017), where the action and VFX weren’t allowed to swamp the characters.
With most of the cast cruising on autodrive, it’s Ni who gives the standout performance and earns the film its extra point. The 29-year-old Nanjing-born actress has had an up-and-down career in a relatively small number of films since debuting just over six years ago, but when she’s been good she’s been very good (Love Will Tear Us Apart 我想和你好好的, 2013; Suddenly Seventeen), and Dunjia is worth watching just for her performance as the clan’s fearless, pipe-puffing warrior. As in her last release, Wu Kong 悟空传 (2017), Ni evokes more than ever a young Shu Qi 舒淇 and shows a class the production never attains overall. But with Hong Kong actor-singer Li Zhiting 李治廷 [Aarif Lee] bland as the naive constable, middle-aged Taiwan rocker Wu Bai 伍佰 just popping in now and then as the clan’s elder, and Mainland actress Zhou basically doing her own thing as the needy, cute orphan, Ni doesn’t have anybody to play off against, apart from co-star Da Peng as the clan’s doctor: the two have their moments, mostly in the mutual attraction they cannot speak of, but the usually over-ripe Da Peng is too muted here to balance Ni’s strong playing.
Aside from the trashy but effective VFX, other technical credits are routine, from the sets to the music. Costumes by veteran Hong Kong designer Chen Gufang 陈顾方 [Shirley Chan] show some personality without being extreme, and the graphic design for the main titles and chapter headings shows some thought and originality. If only that could be said for the rest of the film.
Presented by Le Vision Pictures (Beijing) (CN), Acme Image (Beijing) (CN), Film Can Production (HK). Produced by Film Workshop (HK).
Script: Xu Ke [Tsui Hark], Wei Junzi, Yang Bingjia, Xu Shaofei. Photography: Cai Chonghui [Johnny Choi]. Editing: Li Lin, Xu Ke [Tsui Hark]. Music: Li Ye, Xu Ke [Tsui Hark]. Art direction: Wu Ming. Costume design: Chen Gufang [Shirley Chan]. Action direction: Yuan Heping. Action: Yuan Xiangren, Yuan Xinyi.
Cast: Da Peng [Dong Chengpeng] (Zhuge Qingyun), Ni Ni (Tie Qingting/Chou Tie/Iron Butterfly), Li Zhiting [Aarif Lee] (Dao Yichang, constable), Zhou Dongyu (Xiaoyuanquan/Little Circle), Wu Bai [Wu Junlin] (Lao Da/Big Brother, Wuyin Clan senior), Liu Yan (Da Bimao/Jiaojiao/Hua Xiang Rong, courtesan), Yang Yiwei (Xunfeng Er, Wuyin Clan member), Xie Mao (Yuan Weidong/Lao Gui, Wuyin Clan member), Xu Minghu (Gui Jian Chou, Wuyin Clan member, speed painter), Sun Mingming (Jingang Zhi, Wuyin Clan member), Zhang Lin (Chuanshanjia/Pangolin, Wuyin Clan member), Pan Binlong (inn manager), Zhang Yiqian (Huang Yonghui, scholar), Aikebai’er Heixue (Bai Hu/White Tiger), Wei Lu (snake goblin), Liu Yilin (crude guy).
Release: Hong Kong, 21 Dec 2017; China, 14 Dec 2017.