Mojin: The Worm Valley (Fei Xing, 2018)

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A prequel to 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, in which a band of intrepid treasure hunters brave mysterious wilds and scary animals in search of a MacGuffin that will cure a curse they picked up during an earlier treasure hunting expedition. Where the first Mojin film had an exceptional cast, led by Shu Qi, Angelababy and Huang Bo, and an intricate plot weaving present-day scenes in New York’s Chinatown, a love triangle amid the Cultural Revolution, and effects-driven action scenes together in an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful blend of the personal, the political and the ridiculous, Worm Valley is linear all the way through. After a quick setup, including a minimal amount of backstory related in a speech and a visit to a crazy, blind, and sexist old man, the party of six adventurers head into the jungles of Yunnan to discover whatever the thing is they’re looking for.

Also missing from the first film is the cast, which has been entirely replaced by young actors who kind of but don’t quite resemble their forbears, an uncanny valley effect to match that of the film’s CGI monsters and environments. Also gone is director Wu Ershan, and in his place is Fei Xing, making his first film since the 2013 Aaron Kwok/Sun Honglei film Silent Witness. Fei, somewhat surprisingly given Wu’s history with the effects genre, proves much more interesting a director of spectacle, though that may simply reflect a welcome change in the genre’s conventional style. Like last year’s Monkey King 3 and the previous year’s Once Upon a TimeWorm Valley is full of bright environments, lush with greens and pinks and blues: tall grasses and crystalline flowers, flying bugs that burst into flame when touched. Only its initial action sequences are set in the darkness, but even those are well-lit, allowing the digital creations to shine rather than hide in the murkiness of bad effects. As such the film has a cartoonish quality, at best approaching something like the charm of a lesser Ray Harryhausen movie (more Mysterious Island than Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans).

The Mojin films are based on a highly popular book series called Ghost Blows Out the Light (or alternately, Candle in the Tomb) by Zhang Muye, which has been adapted several times into film and television. There was another film the same year as The Lost Legend, (Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe) though it didn’t, to my knowledge, get a US release. There have also been three TV/web series adaptations of different books in the series, and another film version is to be expected in 2019, Candle in the Tomb (or Mojin X), starring Zhang Hanyu and Celina Jade and directed by Li Yifan. I imagine that knowing the source material or some of the other adaptations is helpful in filling in some of the backstory and fleshing out the characters, but Worm Valley is at its best when it isn’t concerned about any of that, when it just gives into the straight-ahead thrills of an old school adventure serial, with one literally cliff-hanging sequence after another. The only times the movie slows down over its final hour and a half are for brief moments of rest, some joyous nightswimming and a pre-climax motivational crisis, neither of which have the kind of emotional resonance a serious movie would require. It’s not camp, overblowing genre clichés with Aquaman-ian gusto. But it is almost two hours of pretty people wearing leather and canvas shooting giant alligators with arrows and slicing at razor-toothed fish with machetes.

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For a Few Bullets (Pan Anzi, 2016)

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Opening yesterday here in Seattle after debuting a week ago in China, For a Few Bullets is a goofy adventure film, mishmash of references as haphazardly assembled as its not-quite Leone title. Set in 1940, it’s a treasure hunt chase, with a con man enlisted by a Chinese secret agent to prevent the Japanese military from stealing a MacGuffin, the imperial seal used by the first Qin Emperor. Influenced by decades of knock-offs of the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible films, it mixes a series of elaborate heists with a budding romance between the toothy, supercilious Lin Gengxin and the tough, serious-minded agent, Zhang Jingchu. She’s the best thing in the film, tightly-coiled and super-competent in the first half, but, inevitably, sadly, melting into a flowing-tressed, red-dressed, damsel in distress in the second. She literally spends the climactic scene chained to a rock like Andromeda facing the Kraken, while Lin faces-off against the film’s master villain. He’s a monster straight out of a comic book, gas-masked and leather-jacketed, a WWII-era Vader with unexplainable supernatural powers and a collection of severed heads to rival the Faceless Men of Braavos.

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After a dizzying opening twenty minutes, with exposition and character background flashing on screen in comic book panels, text captions and quick, almost sensible actions scenes, the film settles down to a hectic, but comprehensible rhythm. Lin and Zhang meet up with the long lost King of Hustlers, played by Mongolian singing superstar Tengger. He’s a likable presence, an Eric Tsang type, smirking and smarter than he looks. The three travel from Northwest China across the country to Shanghai and Nanjing, trying to capture the MacGuffin as it is transported by train. This gives ample opportunity to show off some stunning locations, desert landscapes and Central Asian steppes that have only rarely been seen on-screen, the colors digitally-enhanced to fantastical levels, a slick, luminous beauty that’s as insubstantial as it is picturesque. The humor is broad, the action quick and polished, if not particularly athletic, and a healthy amount of anachronism, most obviously some elaborate Scooby-Doo-style mask work. This is film as confection, a cotton candy picture that looks neat, has some fun action-heist sequences, pretty pictures, prettier people and nothing of any real substance. Last year’s Mojin: The Lost Legend attempted to tap this same treasure-hunting vein, far less successfully as an adventure, done in as it was by murky special effects. But that film also reached back to the Cultural Revolution and forward to immigrant life in America in creating some depth for its central romance. For a Few Bullets has no such ambitions. It’s nice enough though, and everyone looks like they’re having a good time. We can tell because they’re smiling all through the movie, and in the end-credits blooper reel.