Costume fantasy romance
2011, colour, 2.35:1, 124 mins
Directed by Gordon Chan (陳嘉上)
By Derek Elley
Thu, 29 September 2011, 10:00 AM (HKT)
Unfocused, slackly directed fantasy with just a few good individual performances to its merit. Beyond Asia, little.
Ancient China. En route to the capital to sit for the imperial exams, young scholar Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao) and his servant Hou Xia (Baobeier) become victims of an attempted robbery by swordsman Meng Longtan (Collin Chou). The quarrelling trio end up in a Taoist hillside temple where monk Budong (Eric Tsang) calms them all down. Zhu is intrigued by a mural depicting six beautiful women, and suddenly one of them, Mudan (Zheng Shuang), comes to life. Entranced, Zhu follows her through a tunnel to the Land of Ten Thousand Blossoms, where men are not allowed on pain of death. Finding himself in front of a large palace building, Zhu initially hides behind Mudan but, as the Queen (Yan Ni) arrives for the daily assembly of the chief fairies, her deputy Shaoyao (Sun Li) impulsively hides him beneath her own skirts. The assembly is interrupted by the appearance of Stone Monster, who is in love with the fairies, but he is killed by the Queen and her female soldiers. Later, hiding out in Shaoyao's quarters, Zhu hears her confessing her loneliness to her mirror; after spotting him, Shaoyao is angry but finally agrees to take him to Mudan. Suddenly, however, Zhu finds himself back in the Taoist temple with his servant, the swordsman and the monk. Fearing Mudan may be in danger, Zhu wills himself, Hou and Meng back to the magical land, where they're arrested by the Queen's soldiers and taken to the palace. Though she herself has sworn off men because of a betrayal earlier in her life, the Queen allows the three to stay, as long as each marries a fairy. Meng chooses the sad-looking Yunmei (Ada Liu) but quickly dumps her for Dingxiang (Monica Mok), who encourages him to sleep around. Feeling sorry for her, Hou chooses Yunmei. Shaoyao, who's upset that Zhu is still thinking of Mudan, tries to persuade him to abandon his search for her. However, he finally agrees to marry Mudan's best friend, Cuizhu (Iola Xie), so he can stay on and try to find her. He then discovers Mudan has been imprisoned by the Queen in the fiery hell of Seventh Heaven.
A way over-long fairytale romance that can't decide really what it is, Mural 畫壁 (2011) shows Hong Kong director Gordon CHAN 陳嘉上 still stuck in the creative impasse that blighted his Painted Skin 畫皮 (2008) but without even that film's well-staged action sequences to divert attention from the wobbly drama. For a big-budget fantasy, Mural has plenty to divert the eye, with Cyrus HO 何劍雄's striking sets (especially the fairies' large library) and Bobo NG 吳寶玲's pastel-coloured, filligree costumes and discreet fairy make-up. But it's distractingly weak on a technical level: so-so visual effects, TV drama-like fighting scenes, and a score by Japan's FUJIWARA Ikuro 藤原いくろう that's okay with romance but has no idea how to accompany action. Ace Taiwan d.p. Mark LEE 李屏賓's visuals are solid without having any personal signature. However, the most damaging aspect is the direction: Chan and co-director Danny KO 高林豹 (one of the two co-directors on Painted Skin) seem unable to impart any dynamism to the personal drama, which, as things progress, is revealed to be the core of the movie.
With 21st-century technology, Chan and Ko appear to want to revisit the established Chinese genre of the fairy-and-scholar love story but to give it a different spin. The problem is that it's difficult to see what that spin is: the film swings between Hong Kong comedy (Eric TSANG 曾志偉 miscast as a grinning Taoist monk, plus some marital comedy of errors), serious romance, and fantasy sequences (everyone riding a giant sea-turtle) that are more suited to a kid's movie.
For a film that's essentially about unrequited love and the tricks that Eros can play on both humans and non-humans, the love story between DENG Chao 鄧超's scholar and SUN Li 孫儷's Shaoyao should drive the drama. But good as (real-life couple) Deng and Sun are — especially the latter, in her most substantial movie role to date — the untidy script constantly shifts the audience's attention with a large cast of other characters and numerous subplots. With half-an-hour taken out and the focus tightened around the leads, Mural might work a little better. But at two hours, and with most of the development in the final reels, it's both lopsidedly constructed and dramatically sluggish.
Several individual performances, however, are fine. Alongside Sun and Deng, Baobeier 包貝爾 is likeable as the scholar's love-shy servant and plays well against Ada LIU 柳岩, a well-known TV presenter cast against type as a quiet, lovelorn maiden. Taiwan's Collin CHOU 鄒兆龍 and Beijing-born model-actress Monica MOK 莫小棋 (Ocean Flame 一半海水一半火焰 (2008)) have more extrovert chemistry together that livens up the movie in brief patches, and big-screen Mainland newcomer ZHENG Shuang 鄭爽 has a fragile freshness that's just right for Mudan, the scholar's initial love interest. The biggest disappointment is YAN Ni 閆妮, a normally strong-charactered actress (Cow 鬥牛 (2009)) who swans around as the fairy Queen but never makes her seem either commanding or sympathetic. The sad fact is that the same could be said for the film as a whole.
ContactSales: Golden Network Asia, Hong Kong (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: China, 29 Sep 2011; Hong Kong, 13 Oct 2011.
Presented by Beijing Enlight Pictures (CN), China Anhui Radio & TV (CN). Produced by Top Gun Creative (HK). Executive producers: Wang Changtian, Zhang Suzhou. Producers: Abe Kwong, Gordon Chan.
Co-directed by Danny Ko. Script: Frankie Tam, Maria Wong, Andy Lau Ho-leung, Gordon Chan. Photography: Mark Lee. Editing: Chan Ki-hop. Music: Fujiwara Ikuro. Production design: Cyrus Ho. Costume design: Bobo Ng. Sound: Tu Duu-chih. Action: Dee Dee Ku. Visual effects: Christopher Bremble (Base FX).
Cast: Deng Chao (Zhu Xiaolian), Sun Li (Shaoyao), Yan Ni (Queen), Collin Chou (Meng Longtan, the swordsman), Eric Tsang (monk Budong), Zheng Shuang (Mudan), Baobeier (Hou Xia, Zhu's servant), Andy On (Golden Warrior, the Queen's servant), Iola Xie (Cuizhu), Ada Liu (Yunmei), Monica Mok (Dingxiang), Bao Wenjing (Baihe), Xia Yiyao (Xuelian), Lan Yingying (Haitang), Du Shiwu (housekeeper), Weng Jing (female captain).