I choose to believe that better days are ahead for CG in Asian cinema. For now, what we get is a mixed-bag in at least one particular entry into fantasy wuxia with Zhao Tianyu’s latest, Zhong Kui: Snow Girl & The Dark Crystal, yet another foray into Chinese folklore that boldly goes all-in on visual spectacle to encompass its epic scope. It’s a noteworthy effort but it’s not without its stumbles.
Actor Chen Kun steps into the fray in dual roles for this one, first as Zhong Kui, the appointed and celebrated Demon Slayer of the kingdom of Hu, who still secretly longs for a mysterious woman whom he met three years ago named Little Snow, played by Li Bingbing. The two fall into a bittersweet romance, an underlying subplot that subsides three years later in the storyline when Zhong Kui ventures into the bowels of Hell and recaptures The Dark Crystal, an illuminous gem that determines the fate of both Heaven and Hell every thousand years, and will do so within one week.
When the Demon King and his minions set out to Hu to retrieve it, old flames reawaken when Zhong Kui reunites as Little Snow who now calls herself Snow Girl. Little does Zhong Kui know of what’s about to happen, however, that demons have infiltrated the city to retrieve it, and he is forced to use newfound abilities bestowed upon him by his teacher, a local god named Zhang Daoxian played by Winston Chao, to protect it. Therein lies a series of conundrums for our hero, for when a sudden act of bravery forces Zhong Kui to choose between the woman he loves and the fate of the city, a more nefarious plan unfolds with a great deal of consequences that loom, and Zhong Kui is forced not only to bare with the plight of his own self-discovery, but the fate that lies ahead if the kingdom of Hu is left to perish at the behest of an enemy hidden in plain sight.
The production of Zhong Kui: Snow Girl & The Dark Crystal, bodes extremely well for its efforts in striving to tell such an illustrious story layered with colors and sharp backdrops. Sweeping views of the realms of Heaven and Hell dominate the film as much as several of the more glamourous shots of our lead actress. The costumes and set pieces work just fine in tune with the overall vision, embodied by the use of hybrid green screen and studio-shot scenes to blend accordingly with the overall performances of the cast.
That said, clearly there are areas of the film when the application of CG completely cripples the illusion and instead of realistic-looking creatures, you get certain sequences, especially several of the film’s epic monster battles of which there are plenty, that are almost embarrassing to watch. Alas, so the only real saving graces here are many of the film’s bigger and more detailed, smaller-scale shots, coupled by the performances of Chen and Li, along with Chao and supporting performances by Yang Zishan and Bao Beier, and actress Jike Junyi who plays sister to Li‘s Snow Girl and the Demon King’s second-in-command.
Even Peter Pau gets some screentime for this rodeo, and rightly so for it also bolsters his acclaim as a award-winning cinematographer which does much of the film’s visual muscle justice. Again though, this is where it’s left up to the viewer to decide just how much is forgivable beyond the film’s positives, because if you’re weighing the film mostly on its implementation of CGI, this probably won’t be a complete keeper for you.
Nonetheless, Zhao‘s adaptation of Chinese mythology here is a noteworthy step forward with something vivacious to offer in a market saturated by comic book movies. The key characters here all have shades of grey and you’ll find yourself delightfully surprised here in this regard with concepts like redemption and rebirth all factoring in to this particular story.
If you want something different, you won’t completely enjoy Zhong Kui: Snow Girl & The Dark Crystal, but you’ll certainly appreciate the hell out of it. No pun intended.