Mural (Hua-Bi)

China (2011) Dir. Gordon Chan

Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao) is a scholar travelling to the capital with his servant Hou Xia (Bao Beier) to take an examination. They get into a fracas with a bandit Meng Longtan (Collin Chou) who they chase to a Taoist temple run by Monk Budong (Eric Tsang). Zhu becomes intrigued by a huge wall mural featuring a group of fairy women when suddenly a fairy from the mural, Mudan (Zheng Shuang), comes to life in the temple. Zhu chases after her, finding himself magically transported to the Land Of Ten Thousand Blossoms which is inhabited solely by women and men are forbidden (with the exception of the royal bodyguard, Golden Warrior (Andy On)). With the Queen (Yan Ni) about to begin her daily briefing of the chief fairies Mudan is forced to hide Zhu under the flowing dress of the Queen’s deputy fairy Shaoyao (Sun Li). Zhu is suddenly returned to the real world but fears that Mudan would be in trouble so he wills himself, Hou Xia and Meng to re-enters the fantasy land to save Mudan.

From the team behind the surprise 2008 hit Painted Skin comes another adaptation from Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (from which Painted Skin also comes). It boasts some solid names in the cast and a big budget, so a top quality follow up should be guaranteed. Perhaps it was a case of over enthusiasm in the wake of Chan’s previous successes – which also includes Jet Li’s stunning Bruce Lee tribute Fist Of Legend – but sadly, Mural is a film that falls flat on its face from the onset.

The first thirty minutes sets up the basic plot without actually laying many seeds for future fruition, many of which are suddenly thrown out in passing later on. When Zhu arrives in the fairies’ domain, we see that the Queen is a bit strict but we don’t know why until later that we learn she has sworn off men for life and thus doesn’t want her girls to get hurt so love and male companionship is forbidden. How do they reproduce you ask? Apparently from drinking from a magical fountain. But with Zhu, Hou Xia and Meng on the scene, her majesty has a change of heart and lest them stay on the provision that they choose a bride. Unscrupulous Meng is naturally up for it and picks the shy Yunmei (Ada Liu) but dumps her after one night (she is then pciked up by Hou Xia who feels sorry for her) exchanging her for Dingxiang (Monica Mok) who lets Meng sow as many wild oats as he likes to keep him happy. Meanwhile Zhu was right that something had happened to Mudan so he decides to stick around to find her, choosing Mudan’s best friend Cuizhu (Xie Nan). The Queen annocnes that Mudan is dead but she is in fact locked away in the underground hell called (oddly enough) Seventh Heaven.

Sounds impressive enough and has the makings for a good fantasy romance adventure but something went horribly wrong when making this film as the end result is a bit of a mess. The story lacks proper direction and flow, jumping about with abandon –something made worse by some atrocious editing – and lacking in sufficient exposition to make sense until it is too late. There is a little twist in the romantic facet of the plot but even this is mishandled to deny the viewer a satisfactory conclusions, especially as this and the fallout is crammed into the final thirty minutes as part of a maladroit sprint to the finish which includes one of the most lacklustre final battles ever committed to film.

For a fantasy epic – which it what it wants to be – this aspect is sparingly focused on and when it does arrive on the screen, the action is baffling lethargic and devoid of any intensity and drama. Even the addition – or distraction – of CGI does little to enhance these scenes, applied with similar lack of sizzle. As much as CGI has improved in China they still can’t compete with Hollywood and this film exposes this badly. The giant turtles and the mutli-eyed winged gremlin guard thing look more stop motion than CGI and are teetering on the edge of being cartoonish. Also present is some wire fu flying about but some cases they haven’t even properly erased the wires! Extremely amateur level stuff for a big budget production.

It can’t be reiterated enough that the basic premise and plot for this film has tremendous potential for a great film and in the hands of say Zhang Yimou or even Tsui Hark it might have worked but for whatever reason, Gordon Chan misses more marks than he hits. With the exception of Sun Li and Xie Nan, the cast either can’t be bothered or ham it up too much (Yan Ni please step forward). And Eric Tsang’s role could have gone to anyone.

I wanted to really like Mural but it fell short of the lofty expectations promised by the trailer (which gives away much of the spectacular and better moments) and indeed of Chan’s other works. At least there is plenty of pulchritude on display via the female cast but that isn’t enough to make this a positive recommendation.