Bloated with visual effects, martial artists combat and amorous shenanigans, the one thing missing in “The Thousand Faces of Dunjia” is a comedic touch, which might have made this elaborate blockbuster more appealing. Written and produced by Tsui Hark, and directed by Yuen Woo-ping, this action fantasy about a secret society of fighters with magic powers seems to lend itself to the cheeky tone of American blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” albeit with a Chinese makeover. However, as Yuen’s soulless sequel “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” made clear, he may be a top martial arts choreographer, but he’s a strictly mechanical director.
Tsui’s script, though not without entertaining elements, lacks the intellectual grounding or cinematic oomph that made better works like “The Taking of Tiger Mountain” more than mere spectacles. Nor does his contribution to the editing and music significantly heighten his personal style. The first locally produced tentpole to open in China this Christmas season, the film lags behind Feng Xiaogang’s “Youth,” as “Dunjia” met with unfavorable critical response and weaker box office in its first five days. Opening in the U.S. on the same date, the film should be able to tap into both Tsui and Yuen’s genre fanbase overseas.
The film’s Chinese title “Qimen Dunjia” refers to a hermetic school of war strategy combining sorcery, alchemy, I-ching, fengshui and other occult arts. Legend has it that China’s first emperor Huang Di used it to defeat the goblin tribe of Chiyou to unify the kingdom. In 1982, Yuen directed “The Miracle Fighters” which shared the same Chinese title, a cheesy but nonetheless pioneering hybrid of kung fu and comic hocus-pocus. The current work has almost nothing in common in plot or era, playing it safe by keeping within the state-sanctioned monster genre, while avoiding any associations with Chinese folk magic or ghosts.
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The story kicks off with a nod to — or rip-off — of Stephen Chow’s “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” with a goldfish demon wreaking havoc in the ancient city of Kaifeng. The Wuyin Clan, a secret society whose seven members inherited the magical skills of “Qimen” try to capture it, contributing to the film’s most engaging action scenes in its vibrant combination of classical Chinese art tropes and Hong Kong-style martial arts.
However, it is soon revealed that the monster was just a red herring, functioning only as bait to pull the clan toward an evil force that craves world domination (what else?). The clan’s Big Brother (Taiwanese rocker Wu Bai) takes off to find (or stop others from finding — it’s not clear which) an unsubtly-named device called the Destroyer of Worlds.
On a separate mission to discover Wuyin’s anointed clan leader, who can activate the Dunjia, second-in-command Zhuge Fengyun (actor-director-comedian Da Peng) bluffs his way into a clinic for strange maladies to rescue Circle (Zhou Dongyu, “Soul Mate”). Though a birthmark on her wrist suggests she might be their leader, the frail young ingenue doesn’t seem fit for the job.
Meanwhile, Zhuge’s junior Iron Dragonfly (Ni Ni, “The Flowers of War”) leads the rest of the gang to penetrate Wuyin’s long submerged headquarters, unleashing a dormant power. Amidst the mayhem, a greenhorn constable named Dao Yichang (Aarif Lee Rahman, “Kungfu Yoga”) who has fallen in with their lot becomes an accidental hero. Up to this point, the unpredictable mix of goofy humor and mystery offers a racy hook. However, as with so many of Tsui’s works, subplots and characters multiply out of control after the first act.
A showdown between the five top martial arts schools looks like a contest for weird hairdos. An attempt to graft a sci-fi element onto the apochryphal history of Emperor Huang’s battle against Chiyou 4,500 years ago doesn’t convince. So little exposition goes into “Dunjia” that few can figure out what it really is; nor does the oft-mentioned Destroyer achieve any real cataclysmic impact. And gags built around ancient equivalents of GPS and Facetime don’t quite work in context.
This leaves the principal cast to rally around and infuse some lighthearted romance to an otherwise rote plot. Providing most of the laughs as a cuddle monster, Zhou walks a fine line between being an infantile doll and parodying the lily-white image of her early career, but comes out on the side of cute. Ni, who hasn’t found a project that’s done justice to her tremendous emotional potential since “The Flowers of War,” again pours more passion than her role deserves, making Dragonfly’s fickle and jealous nature credible and touching. Unfortunately, neither actress has much chemistry with her male co-star. Da Peng, who directed sleeper superhero sendup “Jianbing Man” and a runaway comic web series, is especially wooden and charmless.
Rendered in stereoscopic 3D, visual effects supplied by a host of Korean VFX companies allude to the five elements that govern “Qimen Dunjia” but are still too generic to convey a unique visual universe. As in “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back,” Tsui’s recent collaboration with Stephen Chow, the undisciplined outpour of futuristic CGI becomes a eyesore, robbing the combat of any sense of real peril. Unlike the vivid creature-like demon in the prologue, Wuyin Clan’s real foes take glaringly computerized shape not unlike the laser-eyed, rubbery kaiju that frequent Ultraman shows.