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Mojin - The Lost Legend
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by Jay Seaver

"An entertaining treasure hunt, not quite a treasure itself."
4 stars

There has been a lot of talk, both this weekend and leading up to it, about what a massive global juggernaut "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" would be at the box office and how it was sucking up all the Imax screens for a full month. That latter statement actually only applies to the Western world, though, as the giant screens in China are going to "Mojin - The Lost Legend" (formerly known as "The Ghouls"), and there's a good chance it will be the #2 movie worldwide when all is said and done, despite opening on just thirty screens in North America. If it's playing near you, it's a fun alternative if "Star Wars" is sold out or way to keep things going if you want more serial-style adventure, even if it's not quite up to the same standard.

The Mojin Xioawei, we are told, were a group of officially sanctioned tomb robbers founded a thousand years ago with the purpose of "borrowing" gold from buried monarchs to buy food for starving peasants. In 1988, the Mojin are Hu Bayi (Chen Kun), Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo), and Shirley Yang (Shu Qi), but after a near-disaster they have come to New York, a decision that does not sit well with Wang. Even still, he wouldn't return to China without his friends, except that the people his smuggler friend "Grill" (Xia Yu) puts him in contact with have are seeking the "Equinox Flower", something they learned about in 1969, when Hu and Wang were young men in Inner Mongolia competing for the affections of Ding Sitian (Angelababy). Hu and Wang follow, as Hu feels guilty and the company funding this trip is apparently more a cult than a business, with President Ying Caihong (Liu Xiaoqing) certainly determined to find the Flower for reasons beyond profit and historical interest.

The advertising for Mojin describes it as being based upon the "#1 Treasure Hunting Novel in China", which is either a tremendously specific slice of the market or an indication of just how popular treasure-hunting is as a genre over there. I suspect that it might be the middle book of a series, as there seems to be an awful lot of screwing around in the script by Zhang Jia Lu, especially as relates to Shirley's background - I think she's supposed to be Chinese-American and a relatively recent addition to the team - that could really be scrapped or simplified to give the stuff that really works more room to breathe. There's also a bit of stumbling in trying to pretend that this story full of zombies, swarms of blood-draining midges, green fire, bottomless pits, etc., etc., contains nothing supernatural in order to please the Chinese censor board, but you can almost see the cast winking during those scenes.

After a while, at least, the story does get past the set-up and into the swashbuckling pulp material, and that's a lot of fun. Zhang and original novelist Tianxi Bachang pull from familiar tropes, but they deploy those elements with enthusiasm but without a lot of fuss, and occasionally original bits that may not be completely clear to western audiences but which are nifty nevertheless. There's a point where a bit of set dressing that we see so often in these films as to be invisible becomes the solution to a puzzle, with director Wuershan breaking out some of the infographic visuals he used in The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman without breaking the audience too far out of the classic-pulp environment where the film spends most of its time.

Though his filmography is still fairly short, Mojin is clearly is work, especially when the action goes underground and the tomb becomes a heightened three-dimensional environment (this film probably looks terrific in 3D and on the premium screens), and although the martial-arts action isn't quite top of the line, Wuershan and the action team keep it clear even if it is fast-moving, with zombie bits that are genuinely creepy. Some of the visual effects are clearly not what they would be in a similar American film, but they're well-designed and mostly well-rendered. Once things get moving, the movie is admirably fast-paced and exciting, with jolts that raise eyebrows but also keep things moving rather than bring them to a stop.

He's also got an all-star cast to work with, although them not quite gelling as a unit is most of what holds Mojin back from being a truly great adventure movie. Specifically, there's not a great deal of chemistry between Chen Kun and Shu Qi; for a romance that drove them across the ocean, even their bickering is low-key. Things are a bit better between Chen and Huang Bo; they've got a natural camaraderie, with Huang both fun as the goofy member of the trio (think Chow Yun-fat in Once a Thief) and as the soul of the film once the flashbacks begin. Angelababy actually has little more than an extended cameo, but Liu Xiaoqing makes a mad and fierce alpha villain, with newcomer Cherry Ngan the most memorable of her henchpeople.

"Mojin" is no "Star Wars" - or, to go with the more direct comparison, no Indiana Jones. It's a good ride when that's what it's going for, at least; entertaining adventure that will certainly hold China over until "The Force Awakens" arrives next year and is worth checking out for pulp adventure lovers near the theaters where it's playing.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29911&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/21/15 15:48:30
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USA
  18-Dec-2015

UK
  N/A

Australia
  17-Dec-2015


Directed by
  Wuershan

Written by
  Jia-lu Xhang

Cast
  Kun Chen
  Bo Huang
  Qi Shu
  Angelababy
  Yu Xia
  Cherry Ngan
  Xiaoqing Liu



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