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Chinese Tall Story, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Monks, demons, imps, spaceships, and Buddha. Did I miss anything?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Dig deep into the archives here, and one of the first movie reviews you'll find will be for a piece of cheese called "Monkey War 2: New Pilgrims to the West". Neither the review nor the film is really worth looking at; I just bring it up as my first encounter with the Monkey King characters and one of my first encounters with Hong Kong cinema that wasn't art-house or standard martial arts action. I couldn't help but think of it while watching "A Chinese Tall Story", if only because Jeff Lau's new film manages to trump that other movie in budget (by a long shot), craziness, and all-around fun.

Wukong, the Monkey King (Bo-lin Chen), doesn't isn't around for most of the film, as he and his imp companions are captured by an angry demon. He saves his master, the monk Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse), by strapping him to his magic staff and hurling him far, far away. Tripitaka is the second strange thing to fall out of the sky near the lizard imps that find him recently, after a strange cocoon. He eventually winds up paired with Mei-yan (Charlene Choi), an imp with an unsightly skin condition, on the run from attacking demons and looking for allies to rescue Wukong and the others. Their journey will take them to the heavens, and back, and the allies they'll encounter include Xiaoshan (Bingbing Fan), who was tucked away in the cocoon that the lizard imps had found. She's the princess of a technologically advanced group of humans who fled the earth for the stars before the Ice Age. On the way, Mei-yan and Tripitaka must learn to trust each other and Tripitaka must learn to fight, rather than simply try to subdue his enemies with kind words.

This group of characters has been the basis for movies and television many times - Jeff Lau himself made a couple Monkey King films with Stephen Chow ten or so years earlier - but probably never quite like this. Sure, despite having only watched that one old, cheap version, I can recognize a few elements: Wukong's magic staff, his servitude to the Tripitaka as penance for his crimes against the Celestial Court, the pig-imp sidekick, other imps wanting to eat the monk to gain his power are all present. I'm reasonably confident that the time traveling people in spaceships are new, though, and I doubt any earlier edition has had close to this kind of special effect budget.

The opening battle against a horde of demons that Tripitaka is tossed away from is massive enough for Stephen Sommers to feel a twinge of jealousy, and the film abounds with wire work, CGI characters, bright colors, and fanciful environments. The big final battle is absolutely crazy - demons, kaiju-sized plant monsters, kung fu, guys with machine guns, a massive spaceship control room, and what the magical staff transforms into dropped a few jaws in the audience. Lau's got a handle on what his effects crew are capable of, and what he asks of them is not Star Wars-prequel perfection; he knows that the more stuff he puts on screen, the less likely it is to all integrate seamlessly. Many elements feel hollow and weightless. But each effects set piece has new sights that may be wholly different from the previous one, so if there are faults, they're not the same ones.

It reminded me of how, when I was a kid, I might have had a couple Transformers, Star Wars toys, and army men, so when playing with them I'd come up with a story that had them all together. Here, sci-fi brushes against animal spirits and monsters, and the staff becomes the same sort of cartoon character that the carpet was in Aladdin. Every new scene brings a surprise, which almost becomes disbelief by the end. And if you're still able to be floored after spaceships have held off a demon horde in ancient China, the film is doing something right. The only hitch I really found is that the last sequence in the Celestial Court is really kind of brutal compared to what had gone before; this is a movie where people say "oh, sugar!" (at least in the subtitles), and the nasty treatment the hero and heroine get is really not what I'm used to in a family movie. There's slapsticky violence involving knives earlier, but this feels different, there's no tongue in cheek.

I like the cast: Nicholas Tse opens the movie with a goofy, innocent charm as the ivory tower monk who really thinks he can solve all problems just by talking and getting people to see each others' point of view. He's kind of pulled through the movie, but handles each new crazy situation with aplomb. Charlene Choi is full of energy and enthusiasm, putting enough childlike glee into her role that kids won't get turned off by the buck-toothed, spotty face the make-up people put on her I'd like to see another movie with more of Bo-lin Chen's Monkey King, although maybe his cockiness is best enjoyed in small doses. Bingbing Fan gives a quirky quality to Xiaoshan that keeps her from being a serious romantic rival to Mei-yan, but that's OK. More knowledgeable fans of Hong Kong cinema will likely spot a number of familiar spaces; I just noticed Gordon Liu as the King of Heaven.

There's an equal amount of talent behind the camera. Lau is a guy who hasn't really broken through in the West, either by effort or having his films picked up by a major studio (he was a producer on Kung Fu Hustle and wrote So Close, and worked with Wong Kar-Wai early in the careers), but he does a pretty darn good job here, keeping things moving while also giving us enough time to get to know and like the characters. He's got a pretty nice staff behind the camera, too, with beautiful production design and nice effects work making the film a colorful joy to look at. He gets a soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi, best known for scoring Hayao Miyazaki's animated films. Frequent collaborator Cory Yuen stages the action scenes.

This probably won't get much of a U.S. release; it just doesn't look as polished as domestic family adventure movies, so it's probably kind of a hard sell to parents. That's a pity; give this a good dub job and kids would probably eat this up with a spoon.

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originally posted: 07/11/06 14:29:37
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Directed by
  Jeffrey Lau

Written by
  Jeffrey Lau

  Nicholas Tse
  Charlene Choi
  Bingbing Fan
  Bo-Lin Chen
  Isabella Leung
  Kenny Kwan

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