In an unexpected move, director Lu Chuan has made his fifth film an effects-heavy blockbuster far-removed from the arty and often demanding works that made him a justly celebrated auteur and festival darling. His previous film, the long-delayed epic The Last Supper (2012), had suffered commercially both from its stone-cold arthouse leanings, and from being released months after a much more appealing film on the same topic, Daniel Lee’s White Vengeance (2012). And once again, with Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, Lu Chuan found himself directing one of two competing films, both based on Tianxia Bachang’s 2006 best-selling novel Ghost Blows Out the Light, the other being Wuershan’s Mojin: The Lost Legend. This time however, Lu got his film out of the gate first, and by the same token his first major commercial hit. Though set earlier than the Wuershan film in the book’s chronology, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe isn’t a prequel: it’s a rival adaptation with an entirely different backing, creative team and cast, as well as a wildly different approach to the source material.
In 1979, giants fossils belonging to unknown creatures are found in the mountains near the Mongolian border, along with the perfectly preserved remains of humans from thousands of years ago. An government-funded excavation endeavor is initiated, led by Professor Yang (Wang Qingxiang). Among the workers is Hu Bayi (Mark Chao), a young soldier who falls in love with the Professor’s beautiful daughter Ping (Yao Chen). When a freak explosion collapses the excavated tunnels, the Professor asks for volunteers to venture with him and his daughter in the mountain and find new passageways. Hu and a few others step forward, and soon the small team is trekking through the mountain’s treacherous bowels. After the group is decimated by strange, lethal bats, the survivors fall into a precipice, only to wake up at its bottom, miraculously alive. And while looking for a way out, they discover a mysterious cyclopean temple which – as it soon becomes apparent – the Professor had been actively looking for.
As they step inside, an ancient mechanism is triggered, that opens an interdimensional portal, awaking massive demonic creatures who kill everybody bu Hu. Having miraculously managed to escape, the deeply traumatized soldier is reassigned as a librarian in an old library headed by Wang (Li Chen), a mysterious man with an obvious ulterior motive. Having been reunited with his childhood friend Kaixuan (Daniel Feng), Hu spends the following years living a simple life, though the discovery in the library of demonology manuscripts by none other than Professor Wang keeps the past and unanswered questions painfully alive. Little does he know that the Professor and his daughter have both reappeared : the former found wandering in the mountains, thousands of miles away from where he supposedly died, and the latter, found alive but amnesiac in a recently uncovered tomb. At the same time, a northern mining town is ravaged by giant, unknown creatures…
The entire first act of Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is a terrific set piece that stands tall next to any recent Hollywood blockbuster. After a short but delightful found footage prologue and the quick and efficient introduction of the main players, the journey into the bowels of the mountain is a 20-minute delight, its roller-coaster progress steeped in a sense of wonder reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and backed by stunning CGI backdrops by Weta alum John Sheils, as well as Jesper Kyd’s potent and engaging score. There’s also more than a hint of H.P. Lovecraft to the cyclopean discoveries made by the group, giving us a glimpse at what an adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness might look like. At this point Lu Chuan’s grip on both spectacle and atmosphere is quite flawless.
Then things get a bit shakier. Characters that were understandably perfunctorily defined in the opening, remain perfunctorily defined, with Mark Chao making for a likable but rather bland hero. The film starts sputtering along, uneasily jumping forward in time to feed the audience pieces of exposition. While the sense of mystery set up in the first act – as well an omnipresent but unobtrusive sense of humour – keep the film afloat, a weird streak of derivativeness starts appearing, with unmistakable echoes to the X-Men franchise both in the look of some characters (a literal “Nicolas Hoult as Beast” lookalike and a bald and wise Charles Xavier figure) and in the powers that grow in others (like regeneration or elongating nails). Granted, this never gets too distracting, but it contributes to the film’s relative loss of steam and originality in its central portion.
Luckily, things pick up considerably in the final stretch. With the mysterious reappearance of Yao Chen’s Yang, the stunning actress gets to inject some much-needed charisma into the proceedings, sinking her teeth in a character both alluring and dangerous. It’s in this final act that the film’s much-advertised creature action happens, and here Lu Chuan shines again in his apparent mastery of blockbuster filmmaking. The creatures’ CGI animation and composition isn’t always perfect, but Lu’s clearly-shot, wide-angle action scenes always compensate this by integrating them in beautiful, interesting frames. Contrary to so many recent blockbusters, the destruction here is never overdone or overbearing, and again the unforced humour lightens the proceedings without ever breaking the tension. Disappointingly, the film ends in another bout of staggered exposition, though the seeds it plants for the upcoming sequel are promising indeed.
Long Story Short : Powered by strong set pieces and an engaging sense of mystery and wonder, though dragged down by often bland characters and staggered, protracted bouts of exposition, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is on the whole an enjoyable and technically accomplished blockbuster, proving that Lu Chuan’s talents expand beyond the arthouse. ***