THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA (2017) review

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A (very) loose remake by Yuen Woo Ping of his 1982 classic Miracle Fighters, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (henceforward Dunjia) completes a trilogy of sorts, with which writer-producer Tsui Hark has been attempting to revitalize the Wu Xia Pian by going back to classics of the seventies, eighties and nineties and enhancing them with ambitious set pieces full of CGI and 3D enhancements, while leaving the core components and tropes of the genre largely untouched. After 2011’s mediocre but successful Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (in which a sleepy Jet Li let Chen Kun act circles around him while Tsui kept throwing 3D wood splinters at the audience), and 2016’s passable but unsuccessful Sword Master (in which a bland Kenny Lin let Peter Ho act circles around him while Derek Yee kept throwing 3D stone splinters at the audience), comes Dunjia, the better film of the three, and based on its first days of box-office, set to land in between in terms of box-office.

Retaining only the original film’s mixture of martial arts, fantasy and comedy, Dunjia follows Dao (Aarif Lee), the newly-appointed constable of a town, who crosses paths with Dragonfly (Ni Ni), a prominent member of a group of alien hunters, the Wuyin, who (much like the Men in Black a few centuries later) operate covertly, erasing the memory of those who witness their exploits with a powder that is thus the ancestor of the neuralizer. The Wuyin’s Big Brother (Wu Bai), has sent Zhuge (Da Peng) to find a new leader, the only one who will be able to fend off an impeding attack on earth from powerful alien creatures, one of which has laid dormant underground for years. Surprisingly, that new leader comes in the cute and clumsy form of Circle (Zhou Dongyu), a human shape hiding a powerful life-giving phoenix. As the alien threat grows more imminent, Constable Dao has no choice but to join the Wuyin in their quest to save the world.

Tsui Hark and CGI are involved in a torrid love affair, engaging in passionate love-making while the audience either looks away in disgust (2001’s Zu Warriors) or stares with a glint in their eyes (the Detective Dee films). The problem is, CGI is a wonderful tool that more often than not backfires nastily, threatening to sink films that don’t take time or money to polish them enough. And Tsui’s reach almost always exceeds his grasp when it comes to producing outlandish CGI visions. So much of Dunjia‘s runtime is devoted to fantasy battles with massive otherwordly – tentacled or winged – creatures, that the relative crudeness of the computer effects (even when compared to other recent Chinese films, like Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong) can only weigh down the film. Jerky creatures involved in weightless battles against humans, with rules made-up as the film goes.

Luckily, Dunjia fares much better as a comedy, and benefits from an irresistibly appealing cast, from the ever-impressive Ni Ni (who, as we must reiterate following last year’s The Warriors Gate, is an international star waiting to happen) to a surprisingly reigned-in, delightfully wry Da Peng. And of course there’s Zhou Dongyu, whose impeccable balance on the tightrope between comedy and pathos, cuteness and poignancy, is put to full use here. Even the occasionally bland Aarif Lee shines with fine, self-deprecating comic timing. The four are involved in something of a love quadrangle, and their bickering and misunderstandings are infinitely more entertaining than the protracted CGI battles.

There’s also an unforced subversive dimension to the humour, for instance when the prostitute Hua (Ada Liu), whom some of the male characters visit often despite their claim to virtue, is revealed to be a tentacled monster often used as a vessel to deliver messages. Make of that what you will. Thus, despite the film’s underwhelming action and CGI, and its slightly muddled mythology, its eager set-up of a sequel (backed by a cameoing Huang Xiaoming) is not an unwelcome one. These are characters worth meeting again, and their tangled relationships and emotional clumsiness are a more interesting cliffhanger than more big CGI blobs threatening the Earth.

Long Story Short: Weighed down by slapdash CGI and a muddled mythology, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia is redeemed by an appealing cast and a consistently amusing, occasionally slightly subversive sense of comedy. ***

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