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Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal
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by Jay Seaver

"I'm not sure what's going on here, but it looks great."
3 stars

Maybe the best way to describe "Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" (to give it the full name that appears on-screen) is to imagine if Ray Harryhausen had been born in China, making the sort of weird fantasies that were popular in Hong Kong in the 1970s, only he had access to twenty-first century CGI and performance capture. It's rough and all over the place, but also a fair amount of fun.

It takes place in and around the Tang Empire city of Hu, which is apparently right next door to Heaven and Hell. A once-a-millennium day of reincarnation is approaching, and local god Master Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao Wen-hsuan) has recruited lord Zhong Kui (Chen Kun) to slay demons, going so far as to sneak into Hell to retrieve the Dark Crystal, a repository of souls stolen by demons. The Demon King wants it back by the full moon, and has sent a performing troupe of demons led by chameleon Xi Wei (Summer Jike Juanyi) and Snow Girl Xue Qing (Li Bingbing) to retrieve it - made more complicated by the fact that Xue Qing is a spitting image of "Little Snow", a seemingly magical girl he met three years ago.

Six writers are credited here, along with researchers, and I've got no idea just how much they have skewed or mangled the mythological figures presented here. What they have done is to cram a lot of it into one movie, from gods to demons and shapeshifters to dragons, with a story that keys on how people have seven spirits and three souls. For all that is shown on screen, there is even more implied; Chinese mythology always seems to imply more levels to the world than one can imagine. The writers never quite make clear just exactly what the souls in the Dark Crystal actually do, although the ultimate stakes are made clear. There are parts of the movie that seem like they had an idea that just didn't fit with the rest of the story, and others where things are barely described - Xi Wei seems to be around or not in completely arbitrary manner.

For all the mess that the script may be, it's at least often quite a thing to look at. Peter Pau is one of the two directors credited - separately from Zhao Tianyu, rather than as a team, although that could mean anything - and he is also credited as producer, visual effects supervisor, and an additional visual design job of some sort. Plus, of course, cinematographer; that's what he is most justly famous for (he won an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Making a spectacle movie like this is such a large undertaking that it's highly unusual for one person to be so hands-on in every step of the process, but there's little doubt that the movie benefits from it; the environments never clash with the effects, the lighting is beautiful in both conventional and CGI-heavy scenes, and three-dimensional staging is done quite naturally.

The effects themselves, though, are a bit of a mixed bag. Weta Workshop has done their usual fine job on creature design, and as you might expect with Pau being involved from top to bottom, there are a lot of shots that are just gorgeous; pop them out of the movie and they'd be great fantasy art. There's just so much of it, though, that sometimes the budget seems to be stretched too thin, and monsters will look like they lack detail, the interaction between virtual and physical objects will seem a bit off, or there will be a rhythmic sameness to a thing's movements, like a video game where each step is generated by the same algorithm rather than captured individually. The motion-captured demon versions of characters don't necessarily even make it to the uncanny valley.

And yet - at a certain point, it's all right. The digital effects here don't have the same obviously handcrafted look that the practical ones, but like in a Harryhausen film, they work as recreations of myth, and the choreography is good enough that one can stop worrying about Snow Girl's ice form not being photorealistic because it flies with grace and communicates an idea well. Or just revel in the plainly described but well-rendered dragon guardian inside a Demon Suppressing Pagoda.

Of course, there's not so much that one can completely forget the human cast. They're not the movie's weakest link, but as in a lot of movies, they're pulled in so many directions by grander forces enough that they don't necessarily get the chance to be characters. It's very hard to get a bead on Li Bingbing's Snow Girl, for instance, and Chen Kun often has to take Zhong Kui from devil-may-care to tortured in a pretty short window. Winston Chao at least has a steady characterization as Master Zhang, even if it does give some of the game away. Yang Zi-shan and Bao Bei-er actually become pretty important to grounding the story as Zong Kui's sister and friend (with a crush on said sister).

In that way, the movie could use a fair amount of work, both in terms of making it a more story and tweaking the effects that need tweaking. Still, when it gets to play on an epic scale, either in terms of a world-threatening battle or a beautiful single moment, it's possible to put those complaints away for a little bit. Ambition can matter more than success in this sort of fantasy, and Pau and his crew certainly have ambition to spare.

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originally posted: 03/01/15 02:30:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Peter Pau
  Tianyu Zhao

Written by
  Junli Guo
  Raymond Lei Jin
  Huanhuan Zhang

  Bei-Er Bao
  Winston Chao
  Kun Chen
  Summer Jike
  Bingbing Li

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