The intersection between myth and teen drama, between cartoon wuxia and soap opera, with a dash of Hitchcock just to make things interesting, Once Upon a Time is unlike anything likely to play on Seattle Screens this year. The directorial debut of longtime Zhang Yimou cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (he shot all of Zhang’s films from House of Flying Daggers through The Great Wall), it’s as lushly gorgeous as anything in higher profile releases like Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, with acres of peach blossoms, castles in the clouds, and godlike beings morphing freely into animals. The story is adapted from a 2008 online fantasy novel called Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms by Tang Qi, which may have been plagiarized from an earlier online fantasy novel called The Peach Blossom Debt by Da Feng. (You can read about the allegations and compare some evidence for yourself here. I can’t read Chinese, so I can’t judge if it is outright plagiarism or simple imitation. The fact that both works were published online and that in Da Feng’s the romance is homosexual (LGBT depictions are officially banned on television and online media in China) makes the issue particularly complicated). The novel was also adapted earlier this year as the Chinese TV series Eternal Love starring Mark Chao and Yang Mi.
Regardless, the story revolves around the complicated love affair of a pair of immortal beings, Bai Qian and Ye Hua. Bai Qian is 140,000 years old (which she explains, repeatedly) and lives in a delightful forest village with a small green cartoon that looks like a miniature Jolly Green Giant done over by the fx team from Monster Hunt. She spends her days drinking lots of wine and hanging out with her buddy, a Phoenix spirit. One day she’s made to go to a wedding under the sea, where she meets a young boy, his father (Ye Hua, the Crown Prince) and a woman with lovely eyes. The boy and his father recognize her as Su Su, a mortal woman who 300 years earlier had fallen in love with Ye Hua, gotten married and gave birth to the boy, nothing of which Bai Qian remembers. They strike up a friendship and fall in love (again) which ends badly (again) thanks to the evil wiles of the pretty-eyed woman, who loves Ye Hua herself and conspires with a clan of demons to unleash their king, who’d been sealed thousands of years ago in a giant bell in the sea by Bai Qian’s master (a sacrifice which left him encased forever in ice).
It’s all a bit dizzying, but this is intentional: the swirl of identities, of lives repeating cyclical dramas of love and vengeance are typical of the xianxia story (an offshoot of wuxia dealing with immortals and karmic reincarnation), and eventually it begins to make emotional if not literal sense, as we’re simply overwhelmed by the swooning romanticism of it all, everyone sacrificing themselves for everyone else while the universe teeters on the edge of apocalypse. Liu Yifei does well as Bai Qian, stubbornly resisting her fated doomed romance with alcoholic indifference, but Yang Yang is a blander presence as Ye Hua, mostly he just looks sad and moony. The visual effects are the bigger draw, led by the animation director from the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, Anthony LaMolinara, who gets a co-director credit on the film. Like Journey to the West, or Baahubali, Zhao and LaMolinara use effects not to simulate reality, as is the Hollywood standard, but to give us something much richer, images we’ve never seen before (the Heavenly Palace for example manages the mean feat of being subtly inspired by MC Escher). Once Upon a Time doesn’t have the depth of storytelling of those other movies, content to surf along on its pretty romance, but it does have a giant, eight-tailed white fox fighting a dragon made of earth and grass, and that’s something worth seeing.
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