A 3D fantasy adventure about a demon slayer who becomes smitten with, erm, a demon, “Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” comes up with a splashy, game-influenced visual look new to this popular Chinese genre. However, the decision to binge on CGI action setpieces overwhelms the romantic spark of the central characters, played by impossibly beautiful leads Li Bingbing and Aloys Chen Kun, while the film’s themes of class division, human desire and hypocrisy find darker, more riveting expression only toward the end. Co-helmed by Hong Kong lenser Peter Pau and mainland director Zhao Tianyu, the film came in third among eight domestic films released for Chinese New Year, grossing $10.8 million in two days. With the clout of its overseas co-producers Village Roadshow Asia and Warner Bros., it could generate reasonably more international buzz than other Asian genre fare; a North American 3D release kicks off Friday.
For a high-profile international co-production that also brought China’s major film companies such as Wanda Media and Beijing Enlight Pictures onboard, it seems a gamble for Desen Intl. Media, which produced and released the film, to bank on a Hong Kong helmer who’s more recognized as an ace d.p. and an untested mainland helmer whose only feature film credits are a flimsy drama anthology (“The Law of Attraction”) and a low-budget culinary thriller (“Deadly Delicious”). Their bet has only partly paid off.
Pau, the 64-year-old son of distinguished thesp Pau Fang and brother of actress Nina Paw, is best known for lensing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Forbidden Kingdom,” but has only directed three undistinguished films in 20 years. Billed as helmer, producer and visual-effects supervisor, he has coherently streamlined 3D cinematography and ambitious visual effects into a mythological story set during the Tang dynasty. Yet, with $8 million of the $26.4 million budget poured into the VFX (with 20 or so houses employed), it’s no surprise that reportedly 77% of the production is CGI, resulting in a cold, metallic look that sometimes jars with the story’s human elements and whimsical fantasy.
While Pau has certainly achieved a lot on the technical front, what the production needs is a topnotch production designer like William Chang or Tim Yip to give its aesthetic a touch of class. As for Zhao, his contributions include helming the “drama” scenes and serving as one of six writers, though the resulting screenplay is a bit deficient in structure and dramatic flair.
Starting with the same premise as just about every other Chinese supernatural fantasy, “Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” is set in a universe where deities, demons and mortals uneasily coexist. Once every millennium, demons get the chance to reincarnate as humans, or even upgrade to celestial status. As the date draws near, Jade Emperor (Pau) worries that all hell will literally break loose. True enough, Hu City, a fringe town on the Silk Road, has already been raided by demons who have sucked dry the souls of many inhabitants.
Deity Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao) volunteers to save the city, and sends his protege Zhong Kui (Chen) to hell to steal the Dark Crystal, a receptacle for the captured souls that also serves as a database of every demon’s merits and demerits. Zhong, who believes he’s been singled out by heaven to vanquish evil and injustice, stoically endures corporal pain and spiritual torment to master demon-slaying techniques. His relationship with Zhang takes on Faustian undertones as the mentor helps him unleash his raging alter ego. Meanwhile, the Demon King defrosts the snow spirit Xueqing (Li, “Transformers 4”) and dispatches her to Hu City to reclaim the crystal. Arriving with a caravan of demons disguised as a Persian erotic dance troupe, she mesmerizes Zhong, who believes she is his lost love, Little Snow.
Compared with other similar period fantasies that play it safe for family audiences, such as “The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom,” the love scenes have a racy frivolity, enhanced by fine chemistry between Li and Chen. Nevertheless, their characters’ relationship is largely recounted through disjointed flashbacks (not improved by David Wu’s mechanical editing), unfolding in a piecemeal fashion that lacks any grand emotional sweep. Nor is there enough of the wit and character complexity that lent dramatic heft to the likes of “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” (also starring Chen).
More compelling is the screenplay’s nuanced insight into human foibles, and how the three realms mirror existing social hierarchies. Zhong Kui was a demigod in Chinese mythology whose bearded, plug-ugly countenance was scary even to ghouls; taking liberties with the myth, the film’s hero is a handsome scholar whose noble ideals come into conflict with worldly corruption and the temptations of the flesh. Though he vows to be celibate so he can devote himself to serving his country, it doesn’t take long for him to end up in a hot tub with Little Snow, especially with her purring,”I have low body temperature.”
The yarn is almost at an end before it emerges that some of the narrative obscurities are in fact building up to a neat revelation. Zhong’s origins, which most Chinese know, are reconfigured into a self-searching saga, setting in motion an epic showdown with a human resonance beyond the sheer eye-popping mayhem.
Scenes of Chen becoming unhinged are so hysterical that they border on camp; doubling as the cross-dressing Demon King, he delivers a kitschy homage to “Swordsman II.” As Xueqing, Li is like a sexualized Elsa with a subtly insinuating Maleficent streak. But despite her ability to enliven even schmaltz like “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” Li is hamstrung by having to play two separate yet practically identical roles without any depth.
The strongest performance actually comes from the commanding Chao, who infuses an ostensibly meritorious role with subtle layers. During a crucial dramatic turn, he takes hold of the scene with just the faintest shift in expression, vividly conveying the mindset of a petty official sent by the central government to meddle in county affairs. As Zhong’s sister Ling and her fiancee Du Ping, respectively, Yang Zishan and Bao Beier buzz in and out, providing barely noticeable comic relief. Jike Summer exudes mystery in the role of Xueqin’s quasi-Sapphic sidekick.
Tech credits are visibly superior to those of recent big-budget Chinese costume fantasies, though the 3D effects don’t look as sharp or vibrant as they ought to at the mainland screening caught. The shadow of the “Ring” franchise hangs heavily over the early inferno visions, but production designers Kenneth Mak and Lam Wei-kin gradually evolve their own visual style, fusing futuristic cyber-elements with classical Chinese aesthetics. Jacky Yeung’s robust and wide-ranging action sequences consciously break away from traditional martial-arts choreography, while Shirley Chan’s magnificent costumes, enhancing Li’s voluptuousness, will take couturiers to fabric heaven.