Diving into the bowels of the earth to fight zombies and explore a lost Khitan kingdom, the 3D tomb-raiding blockbuster “Mojin: The Lost Legend” barrels forth with enough robust action and technical moxie to make audiences overlook its formulaic plotting and rote characterizations. Though the film lacks the spooky, macabre spirit expected of this subterranean subgenre, Mongolian-Chinese helmer Wuershan (“Painted Skin II: The Resurrection”) applies his outlandish visual panache to evoke an underground world of ethnic antiquity refreshingly distinct from traditional Han-Chinese culture. The pic earned about $18.4 million in just one day and is out to plunder local box office until the force of “Star Wars” awakens on Jan. 9. Asian genre buffs should also dig this Stateside.
“Mojin,” initially titled “The Ghouls,” is China’s second tomb-raiding blockbuster, opening less than two months after Lu Chuan’s “Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe.” Both films were adapted from the sensationally successful Web novel series “The Ghost Blows Out the Light” by Tianxia Bachang (the pen name of Zhang Muye). While Lu’s production company, China Film Group, owns the rights to the series’ first four volumes, Wanda Media acquired the rights to film the last four, at which point other industry giants (Huayi Brothers Media and Beijing Enlight Pictures) came on board, adding financial and producing clout to the project. Due to sensitive issues about the circulation of national treasures abroad and the reported prevalence of grave robbing in poorer parts of China, the subject was feared to be taboo on screen, making the project one of the Chinese film industry’s most anticipated over its three-and-a-half-year gestation period.
Wuershan’s gorgeous visuals and offbeat genre sensibility mesh well with screenwriter Zhang Jialu’s flair for mainstream entertainment as seen in “Painted Skin II” and Feng Xiaogang’s “A World Without Thieves,” even if the writer’s tendency to let his subplots meander is again evident here, and the characters are not as colorful as in his other creations. Still, thanks to executive producer Chen Kuo-fu’s experience with fantasy blockbusters like “Painted Skin II” and Tsui Hark’s “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” the production shares the hallmarks of Hollywood equivalents like the “Indiana Jones,” “Lara Croft” and “Mummy” franchises without looking too derivative of them.
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“Mojin,” which means “touching gold” in Chinese, refers to the shady craft of tomb raiding, also known as dao dou in slang. Hu Bayi (Aloys Chen Kun), Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo, “Dearest”) and Shirley Yang (Shu Qi, “The Assassin”) belong to a secret society of Mojin Captains, who inherited the obscure art from their ancestors. The film gets off to a swinging start with the trio in operation, performing elegant wire stunts with a sarcophagus inside a cavernous tomb. The scene shifts abruptly to ’80s New York, where Bayi and Kaixuan have renounced their trade and get by peddling fake amulets on the street. The American-born Shirley, who’s smitten with Bayi after a one-night stand, offers to marry him so he can get a green card.
Grill (Xia Yu), a hustler and agent for the trio, tries to broker a deal for Mark (Cao Cao) and Yoko (Cherry Ngan), executives of a global mining company wishing to hire Kaixuan to locate the burial ground of Khitan princess Audo in Inner Mongolia. On Bayi and Shirley’s wedding day, they receive a VHS tape that sends all three of them rushing back to the site where the cryptic opening scene took place. Arriving ahead of them is Ying Caihong (Liu Xiaoqing, “Dowager Empress”), a Chinese-Japanese religious cult leader who owns the mining company, and has purchased vast stretches of land under which the tomb may lie. As the motley crew make their perilous way underground, each person is obsessed with seizing the Equinox Flower, a charm with the mythic power of bridging the divide between life and death.
Like the novel series, the film straddles two seismic eras in modern China — the height of the Cultural Revolution, and the dawn of economic reform in the ’80s. The plot devotes considerable length to re-creating the political fanaticism of the ’70s, when Bayi and Kaixuan, as the so-called “Lost Generation,” were sent down from their urban origins to Inner Mongolia for rural education. Their first crush on comrade Ding Sitian (Angelababy) infuses the action with a dash of romantic nostalgia. While Sitian’s coy innocence drolly contrasts with Shirley’s sexual assertiveness, her fate also accounts for Bayi’s intimacy issues, bringing emotional heft to his deepening bond with Shirley as they endure numerous trials.
The protags’ first tomb expedition during this period also reps the most dynamically realized section of the film. From the sighting of the entrance flanked by ominous-looking Khitan statues to their discovery of a Japanese Imperialist presence during WWII, the air of suspense and doom carries the weight of bloody history, including the barbarity of red guards who were brainwashed into destroying archeological treasures as anti-feudalistic acts. The slogan “We true materialists are fearless,” chanted by Bayi’s comrades as they smash all artifacts in sight, will have a sardonic resonance for contempo audiences.
The ’80s-set action sequences are less briskly paced, slowed down by continuous wrangling between the characters. The whole Equinox flower business is poorly explained, and the appearance of zombies and reanimated statues no longer scare or surprise; nor are the tools of navigation and survival represented in an intelligible or cinematically striking way. Still, these are small blemishes in light of the monumental grandeur achieved by production designer Hao Yi and set decorator Wu Gehua, or the smooth integration of visual and special effects, which convey spectral fantasy and visceral realism, respectively.
The film’s weakest element is the slapdash teaming of Bayi, Kaixuan, Shirley and Grill, sans any backstory on how they met, trained and became part of the Mojin fellowship. Fans of the original will of course have a point of reference, but even so, the characters’ solidarity and readiness to sacrifice themselves for each other strain belief, especially since they follow different agendas and lock horns all the time. The last stretch of their adventure, though at least 10 minutes too long, does build a warm amity between Bayi, Kaixuan and Shirley, but Grill remains a self-interested, loud-mouthed braggart who deserves to be fed to the zombies.
Chen has been trying to strengthen his acting chops by sporting a grittier, more eccentric look (such as the ogre-like Zhong Kui in “Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal”). Here he goes for a gaunt, stubbly look that makes him resemble Shu Qi’s longtime co-star Chang Chen, but he can’t match Chang’s brooding intensity or passionate depth. While Shirley does nothing we haven’t seen already from Lara Croft or Alice from the “Resident Evil” franchise, Shu still graces the rough-and-ready action with foxy effervescence. Huang, avoiding the original Kaixuan’s buffoonery, plays the character straight, thus developing an engaging arc that’s marred only by some overplaying toward the end. Though always a domineering screen presence, Liu makes a pretty feeble villain.
Tech credits mark a significant step up for mainland action-fantasies, with 3D and CGI effects delivering the necessary spectacle without being splashed about for their own sake. The lensing, by Taiwan-based American d.p. Jake Pollock, stays in keeping with the film’s shifting locations and period aesthetics. Shooting in his homeland, Wuershan uses the natural beauty of the boundless grassland to contrast the majestic but suffocating underground kingdom. Koji Endo’s score employs Mongolian folksongs to elegiac, evocative effect.
The Chinese title translates as “Ghost Blows Out the Light: Secret Formula to Finding the Dragon.”