Three months after Lu Chuan’s Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe comes another adaptation of Tianxia Bachang’s 2006 best-selling (but never translated in English) series of eight novels, Ghost Blows Out the Light. Though set later than the Lu Chuan film in the book’s chronology, Wuershan’s Mojin: The Lost Legend isn’t a sequel: 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. Starting in New York but set mostly in the prairies and depths of Inner Mongolia, it follows three adventurers known as the Mojin Xiaowei, who perpetuate the tradition of tomb raiders once sent by emperors in times of need to ‘borrow’ riches from tombs. Shirley Yang (Shu Qi), Hu Bayi (Chen Kun) and Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo) live in New York, having retired from tomb raiding. But through their associate Grill (Xia Yu), Wang gets hired by a rich and mysterious businesswoman (Liu Xiaoqing) and her cult-like followers to help her find the ancient tomb of a Khitan princess in Inner Mongolia. Initially reluctant but smelling something fishy, Shirley and Hu follow the expedition closely. But once they find the tomb it becomes apparent they’ve been there already : 20 years before when they were in the Communist Youth League, Hu and Wang loved the same woman, Ding Sitian (Angelababy), but lost her and many other comrades when they entered an an abandoned Japanese underground base where the corpses of soldiers mysteriously came back to life and started slaughtering the intruders. Now it appears that the strange businesswoman’s endgame is to find the Equinox Flower, a fabled artifact that can resurrect the dead…
Outside of the lead trio’s character names, the Inner Mongolian and underground setting, and a handful of minor plot points, Mojin: The Lost Legend (henceforward Mojin) has little in common with Chonicles of the Ghostly Tribe (henceforward Ghostly Tribe). The latter was infused with Vernian wonder and Lovecraftian cosmic dread, with an emphasis on creature action ; Mojin on the other hand is a platform-hopping, artifact-seeking adventure film that calls to mind the Tomb Raider video games and film adaptations or more favorably, the Mummy films. But for all its lavish production values and big stars, it’s a surprisingly simple and repetitive film. Two thirds of the film take place underground and consist of often redundant double-crosses, short martial arts skirmishes and endless bickering among the main trio. The MacGuffin is ill-defined for much of the film, which gives an almost aimless and mechanical feel to the proceedings. The CGI underground vistas are often impressive, but surprisingly Wuershan finds little to do with the immediate surroundings, and where in its underground first part Ghostly Tribe conjured majestic cyclopean visions and constant telluric danger, here we’re stuck with non-descript crevasses and rope-bridges. Clearly the director was much more inspired with the stunning landscapes of his native Inner Mongolia, but those are unfortunately much less featured.
It doesn’t help that while played by a starry cast, the characters are often frustratingly bland, broad or ill-defined. Chen Kun makes for a dashing adventurer, and Shu Qi is as charismatic and gorgeous as ever (hell, make her the next Lara Croft in the upcoming reboot), but the two of them have very few distinctive traits : basically they’re dashing/gorgeous adventurers, and that’s it. They have passable chemistry but their love-hate, flirt-annoy pas de deux throughout is painfully rote and uninvolving, precisely because they’re but stock figures, albeit ones played by appealing actors. Huang Bo and Xia Yu provide hyper-active, very broad comic relief, with the latter in particular being so cartoonishly zany as to constantly threaten to tip the film into farce. Liu Xiaoqing actually makes for an interesting – if underdeveloped – villain with an otherworldly stare and eerie beauty, and Cherry Ngan leaves her mark as a spunky Japanese henchwoman, but Angelababy gets a startlingly pointless role, one that forebodingly haunts the first two thirds of the film in flashbacks and dream sequences, before eventually revealing itself as nothing more than a footnote.
Still, it would be unfair to dismiss Mojin entirely. Despite its narrative shortcomings, it entertains with aplomb and has moments of pure spectacle that show that China is catching up with Hollywood pretty fast in terms of blockbuster entertainment. Though Wuershan’s garish visual panache seems a bit dialed down after his two previous films (The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman and Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection), which is both a good thing as his style can get a bit tiring over two hours, and a bad thing: it could have spiced up the film a bit. But he’s still an engaging creative force with some refreshingly bold visual ideas, such as a stunningly visualized epiphany that strikes Chen Kun’s character mid-flight as he’s swinging on a rope to catch a powerful meteorite carved in the shape of a flower. The film doesn’t set up a sequel as glaringly as most recent blockbusters, but its almost guaranteed success in Mainland China means we’ll be seeing more of the Chen/Shu/Huang trio, and while we’re more excited about the Ghostly Tribe sequel, it will no doubt be interesting and entertaining to witness two parallels franchises with distinctive directors, spun from the same source novels. That is, other than The Monkey King.
Long Story Short : Despite its starry cast and high production values, Mojin: The Lost Legend suffers from repetitive action, ill-defined stakes and overbearing comic relief. Still, it has moments of inspired spectacle and shows that China is starting to catch up with Hollywood in terms of blockbuster entertainment, both for better and for worse. **1/2