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Once Upon A Time
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by Jay Seaver

"A beautiful, if sometimes silly, fairy-tale romance."
3 stars

The trouble with reviewing something like "Once Upon a Time" on a platform that is pretty much all words is that sometimes a movie's story can be utterly ridiculous and its dialogue (at least in subtitle form) inartful at best, and it's easy to point that out, whereas the argument for the movie is "just LOOK at this thing!" It's a fantasy romance of rare visual splendor, maybe just enough to overcome all of the other very real problems it has.

Royal Immortal Bai Qian (Crystal Liu Yifei) is the Empress of Qingqiu; a six-tailed fox in her spirit form and looking quite good for her 140,000 years, especially considering that she seems to be drinking a lot. She's betrothed to Ye Hua (Yang Yang), a crown prince who at a mere 50,000 years of age seems absurdly young to her. Nevertheless, they meet at a party in the Eastern Sea, although Qian first meets A Li (Peng Zisu), Ye Hua's "Little Rice Ball" of a son with a mortal named Su Su who threw herself off a platform and into oblivion 300 years ago. Qian, it seems, looks just like Su Su, leading the prince to make a more active attempt to woo her and thus earning the ire of Su Jin (Li Chun), the Princess Consort with enough of a crush on Ye Hua to conspire with demoness Xuan Nu (Gu Xuan), who aside from wanting to use A Li's body to resurrect her unborn child also wishes to free demon king Qing Cang (Kevin Yan Yikuan) from the Eastern Magic Bell where he was sealed by Qian's former master Mo Yuan, who is now frozen in a cave near Qian's home.

It would be easy enough to write a version of that last paragraph (or even cut a trailer) that emphasizes the latter half, playing up the monsters and grand battle scenes and suggesting that Bai Qian and Ye Hua are a warrior odd couple who will wind up together because they're the male and female lead, but for better or worse, the action/adventure is decidedly secondary: The bulk of the movie is Ye Hua feeling that his betrothal to to Bai Qian is destiny but wondering if his attraction is influenced by how he failed Su Su, while Bai Qian finds she is starting to like this impertinent young man but not only denies any connection to Su Su but worries about being unfaithful to to Mo Yuan, as she has waited millennia for his soul and body to reunite. It's a fantastically grand romance and would be even if one knocked the time frame down to a less grandiose level - despite the scale of it, the motives of everybody are pretty easy to grasp, whether Bai Qian is second-guessing herself or Su Jin is acting on simple jealousy. Like any good, expansive mythology, there are little sub-stories that could be spun out into their own entertaining movies: There's a great horror movie in Xuan Nu's desire to place her unborn son's soul in A Li's immortal body, and the outlines of something gothic in the flashbacks to a pregnant Su Su brought into the palace but placed among the maids.

For all the grand scale of the love stories that have the potential to coalesce into one - indeed, because of how eternal and powerful this romance is supposed to be - the film needs the central couple to work no matter how they are paired up, and that's an area where the film often falls short. Crystal Liu Yifei handles what is thrown at her fairly well - the recklessness and pettiness shown early occasionally allows a glimpse of dissatisfaction, and she invests what could just be fantasy big-talk with genuine introspection later when talking about how her long life breaks into phases where she barely feels like the same person. There's more spark between her and Luo Jin as the old friend who tends her kingdom's peach orchard than there is with Yang Yang's Ye Hua, though, and it's not just that Ye Hua is initially written as a jerk (girl says she's not interested, you don't just show up at her house with your kid and literally claim a place in her bed as your right, even if you are betrothed and the Crown Prince). Yang does a fairly good job of making Ye Hua more than his initial smarm and even eventually looking like he's got genuine rather than plot-mandated affection for Bai Qian, but it's kind of telling that the pair seem to display the most chemistry in the flashbacks of a younger Ye Hua with Su Su, scenes which have them posing under voiceover narration rather than doing anything back and forth.

Neither they nor the rest of the cast should be held responsible for the weak script, which often stumbles when it has to focus on details rather than sweeping strokes: There are storylines which get dropped midway through and huge twists that sudden revelations that, though they were set up thousands of years ago and everybody involved should know about them, are put out there at the last minute to add a bit of extra potential tragedy when the stakes are already absurdly high. There's also some just dumb, obvious issues with the script: All of us mere mortals know that sentencing someone to guard the archenemy of their intended victim is probably going to go wrong really quick, and maybe immortals don't have great memories, but if Bai Qian is 140,000 years old (as she repeats a couple dozen times) and prominent, wouldn't it be more likely that the immortals would have thought Su Su looks like her 300 years ago rather than the other way around?

It's easy to chip away at the movie like that, but when you're in the front half of a theater with the 3D glasses on (and this film's North American release appears to be exclusively in 3D), the impulse to marvel at what one is looking at can overwhelm that sort of dissection. Nearly every scene is augmented with visual effects, and if some of the creature work could use a little work, the environments are fantastic, often with glorious whimsy and creativity in their design (take, for instance, the jelllyfish creatures which shuttle Bai Qian and the other guests to the party in the Eastern Sea). The use of depth is fantastic, even as directors Zhao Xiaoding and Anthony LaMolinara occasionally stitch elements together at right angles. The big action sequences may not be the reason this movie exists in the way that they are in other fantasy adventures - a climactic battle that could be twenty minutes long runs about five here - but they're done well, with one excellent monster and a great image of heavenly archers firing volleys from what has been called "the nine-layer sky" throughout the film.

I don't necessarily love "Once Upon a Time", but it's not for me - I'm an American not well-versed in Vivien Tang's novel or the mythology that it draws upon, and I tend to favor adventure over romance. It's unusual enough to use these sorts of resources on a movie with this focus (even in the West, there are a lot of action/adventures between the likes of "What Dreams May Come" and "Upside Down") to make things interesting, even if there's some storytelling issues that the great imagery smooths over.

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originally posted: 08/16/17 05:39:25
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8/21/17 Louis Blyskal Great Film 5 stars
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Directed by
  Anthony LaMolinara
  Xiaoding Zhao

Written by
  Han Li
  Han Liu
  Vivien Tang

  Yang Yang
  Chun Li
  Yifei Liu
  Jin Luo
  Yikuan Yan
  Alex Zhang

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