'Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal' ('Zhong Kui Fu Mo: Xue Yao Mo Ling'): Film Review
Oscar-winning Hong Kong DP Peter Pau reshapes Chinese folk deity Zhong Kui as a VFX-enhanced hero
An accomplished, well-established filmmaker with a colorful career of his own, Peter Pau might possibly loathe being associated with Ang Lee, with whom he worked – and won an Academy Award – on the paradigm-shifting Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. But the Hong Kong cinematographer’s first directorial effort in 13 years (and third in total) does mirror – if inadvertently – his erstwhile Taiwanese collaborator’s work: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal injects a Chinese folk hero with narrative elements from The Incredible Hulk, and is effective enough in its fusion of visual effects and story.
With its nods to the high-octane, paranormal action romances that emerged from Pau’s hometown in the 1980s – mostly in its forbidden love story between a man and a non-human woman, à la A Chinese Ghost Story or Green Snake – Snow Girl, a hit in China (with takings of over $53 million since its Feb. 19 release), should play well with a niche international audience. The film’s major fanbase might be those who liked Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, also handled by Well Go USA and yet another recent example of a Hong Kong filmmaker reshaping an existing text in the image of the city’s genre movies (in that case, transforming a propagandistic Peking Opera piece into a gun-slinging gangster thriller).
Snow Girl’s protagonist is not Li Bingbing’s titular porcelain-white spirit. Instead, the lead character is Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), the fabled demon hunter legendary as much for his ghost-busting abilities as his hideous appearance. His bearded mug is right there from the beginning when he is seen fleeing with the Dark Crystal, a vessel said to contain the spirits of all mortals. It’s a mission overseen by Zhong’s mentor, Master Zhang (Winston Chao), in a move to prevent hell’s soldiers from invading the living world. Zhang helps Zhong develop the ability to transform himself into a powerful ogre – which, Zhang says, reveals Zhong’s darker, inner self.
The appearance of Snow Girl – a femme fatale from hell, arriving in Zhong’s border outpost town as the lead performer of a titillating dance troupe – kindles Zhong’s memories of a past relationship, when he was a handsome scholar preparing for an examination that would propel him toward power. These episodes, revealed in flashback, evoke that old cliché of a man trading in his bright future for cynicism because of a lost love.
But Pau’s screenwriters – a six-strong team led by his co-director Zhao Tianyu – manage to push the story toward a plot twist beyond romance as Zhong discovers his current incarnation as a scary superhero of uncontrollable temperament .
David Wu’s editing contributes much to the film’s flow between past and present while keeping the ultimate truth under wraps. But it’s Pau’s visual talent, both in terms of his work as DP and also in supervising visual effects, that brings weight to Snow Girl. This could be seen as another reminder of the technical expertise of Hong Kong film professionals, what with Pau and Wu joined by production designers Kenneth Mak and Lam Waikin and costume designer Shirley Chan. With loose ends aplenty, a sequel seemingly awaits — perhaps a test of the crew’s mettle in pushing this whole concept forward.
Opens: Feb. 19 (China); Feb. 27 (US)
Production companies: Desen International Media Group, in association with Beijing Enlight Pictures, Wanda Media, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, Warner Bros (F.E.) Inc, K. Pictures (Beijing), Shenzhen Wus Entertainment, Shenzhen Tencent Video Culture Communication, Beijing Tianhua Xiuxing Media
Cast: Chen Kun, Li Bingbing, Winston Chao, Wang Zishan, Bao Beier
Director: Peter Pau, Zhao Tianyu
Screenwriters: Zhao Tianyu, Qin Zhen, Shen Shiqi, Li Jie, Raymond Lei Jin, Eric Zhang
Producers: Ann An, Peter Pau, with Wang Ding, Chen Lizhi
Executive producer: Ann An, with Wang Changtian, Jerry Ye, Ellen Eliaspoh, Pan Xiaoxiao, Chen Kun, Bruce Wu, Sun Zhonghuai, Greg Basser
Director of photography: Peter Pau
Production designer: Kenneth Mak, Lam Waikin
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editor: David Wu
Music: Javier Navarrete
Visual Effects Supervisors: Peter Pau, Kim Jongpull, Bernard D. Ceguerra
Action choreographer: Jacky Yeung
International Sales: Arclight
US distributor: Well Go USA
PG, 118 minutes