LEGEND OF THE NAGA PEARLS (2017) review

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Once upon a time in the mythical city of Uranopolis, an apocalyptic battle opposed humans to the the Winged Tribe; the latter was defeated and gradually went almost extinct. Now Xue Lie (Simon Yam), a royal descendant of the Winged Tribe, wants to avenge his his race and restore its glory: he is searching for the Naga Pearls, magical entities that can open a cataclysmic “eye in the sky” that would eradicate the human race. But Ni Kongkong (Darren Wang), a thief, has chanced upon the Naga Pearls and thus becomes the only one who can stop Xue Lie, with the help of Hei Yu (Crystal Zhang), a constable and descendant of the Winged Tribe, and Ge Li (Sheng Guan Sen), the son of the king of Uranopolis, eager to prove himself to his father.

Produced by Gordon Chan, Legend of the Naga Pearls has less in common with the countless recent Chinese fantasy epics dealing with the Monkey King or classical Chinese myths, like League of Gods or Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, than with 80’s American quest films like Willow, Conan the Destroyer or The Neverending Story. Contrary to the former, it doesn’t feature pre-existing myths, protracted power battles that make up their rules as they go, and grandiose dialogue (there are exceptions to that formula, of course). And like the latter, it is pacy and hearty, yet traversed with surprisingly brutal passages and an occasionally somber undercurrent. There’s almost nothing new in Lei Yang’s film: it follows a very familiar quest narrative, down to its characters and their interactions: the lovable rogue and his feisty love interest, bickering polar opposites gradually drawn to each other, the powerful villain who likes to explain his plan and lets his henchmen (here played by Shi Yanneng and Jiang Luxia under heavy make-up) do most of the work, the entitled prince who learns the true meaning of courage… It’s all very familiar.

Yet it’s hard not to be won over by the film’s charms. These include outstanding artistic contributions: truly lavish and evocative set design from Kenneth Mak (Young Detective Dee, Rise of the Sea Dragon, among many collaborations with the likes of Tsui Hark, Wilson Yip or Derek Yee), superb costumes by Liang Tingting (who recently impressed with Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield), above-average CGI (for a Chinese blockbuster), and a gloriously old-fashioned score by Ikuro Fujiwara. But also a general lack of pretentiousness, abundant fight scenes expertly choreographed by Ku Huen Chiu (with well-measured wirework and a surprising amount of grounded sword-fighting), and amusing Hong Kong-style tonal shifts: this is a film where one second a cute pangolin-like pet farts in the face of its owner, and the next second people are being graphically stabbed by the villain’s tentacular appendages, or eaten from the inside by weird phosphorescent insects. There’s even a handful of sex jokes.

Comic relief is fairly uneven: Oka, the aforementioned pangolin, is a cutesy creation obviously meant to catch on in the same way as the radish-monter from Monster Hunt, and brings little to the film beyond a merchandising opportunity, while Darren Wang’s relentless mugging and broad comedic stylings quickly becomes wearisome. On the other hand, Zhao Jian is hilarious and steals scenes has a zealous palace guard who has become an innocuous bandit after being kicked out of the guard for whoring and drinking, while Crystal Zhang’s recurrent jibes at Sheng Guan Sen are good spiky fun. After her poorly-developed role in Yuan Weidong’s Father and Son, Zhang is a thorny and charismatic revelation as the feisty constable Hei Yu, and she easily overshadows Darren Wang. Simon Yam is enjoyably sinister in his ‘albino-elf’ make-up, and the excellent Zhou Yiwei makes a short cameo as a decadent prince.

Long Story Short: Legend of the Naga Pearls is a familiar but entertaining fantasy epic, its rote script saved by lavish visuals, abundant fight scenes, occasionally successful comic relief and a general lack of pretentiousness. ***

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