AKA: The Ghouls
Director: Wu Ershan
Writer: Tianxi Bachang
Producer: Chen Kuo-Fu
Cast: Chen Kun, Huang Bo, Shu Qi, Angelababy, Xia Yu, Liu Xiaoqing, Cherry Ngan Cheuk-Ling, Jonathan Kos-Read
Running Time: 125 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The Mainland Chinese blockbuster is becoming a more and more common sight in recent years, as the local industry looks to satisfy a population that increasingly enjoys going to the cinema with its own big budget movies, rather than having to rely on Hollywood productions. So far the trend seems to be on little else other than fitting in as much spectacle as possible, with efforts such as Switch and Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal all too obviously trying to impress with their technical aspects, while paying little attention to almost everything else. Mojin: The Lost Legend was released to close out 2015 in China, and is the second adaptation of the web novel series ‘The Ghost Blows Out the Light’ in 12 months, the first being Lu Chuan’s Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe.
Directed by Wu Ershan, an Inner Mongolia native, Mojin marks his third time in the director’s chair after 2010’s eclectic comedy The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman, and 2012’s fantasy adventure Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection, a sequel to the 2008 Donnie Yen starring original. Ershan studied oil painting at China’s Central Institution of Fine Arts, before attending the School of Directing at the Beijing Film Academy, and his eye for visual flair is certainly something which is reflected in his work so far.
Mojin marks Ershan’s first foray into making a movie that takes place in a modern day setting (1988 to be precise), and gives us Chen Kun, Huang Bo, and Shu Qi as a trio of tomb raiders, known as Mojin. Kun has worked with Ershan before, with a role in Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection (as well as the 2008 original, and the previously mentioned Zhong Kui), while Bo should be familiar as the unhinged Monkey King from Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. Out of the trio, it’s unlikely that Shu Qi needs any type of introduction. She also recently starred alongside Bo in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, but 2015 will no doubt be remembered for her role in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, for which she was nominated for Best Leading Actress at Golden Horse Film Awards the same year.
The plot for Mojin is fairly simple. So simple that it sometimes glazes over important details. In a nutshell, the trio have made a vow to stop raiding tombs. The only time we ever see them raid a tomb is in flashback to 20 years earlier, so it’s never really defined how often they’re actually indulging in the tomb raiding business, but either way, they’ve vowed to stop. Why they’ve vowed to stop is never explained, however it’s a cause of tension for Bo. Kun and Qi have slept with each other (revealed just though talking unfortunately), so they’re happy to do their own thing, however 20 years ago Bo lost a girl (played by AngelaBaby) he had a crush on in a tomb raiding incident, and before she died he promised to find the Equinox Flower. The Equinox Flower is an ancient treasure said to have mystical powers, so when a shady organisation reveal they’ve found it and want to recruit Bo to extract it from the tomb, despite his principles he finds himself unable to say no.
Proceedings actually kick off in New York city (or ‘sick America’ as it’s referred to), before quickly moving to Ershan’s native Mongolia, the setting in which both the flashback scenes to 20 years earlier and the rest of the plot take place in. The Mongolian landscapes offer an opportunity for Mojin to really set itself aside from many of the recent blockbusters, with its unique vistas providing a refreshing change from the usual locales. However this chance is squandered by the rush to get into the tomb, which is where over a third of the movie takes place in, and is mostly made up of a subdued blue-grey palette in which many rock formations, rickety old rope bridges, and booby traps take shape.
Mojin looks to be aiming for a kind of The Mummy meets Lara Croft: Tomb Raider vibe, which western audiences will likely be of the opinion that neither productions are particularly great movies to aspire to. That being said, if Hollywood does ever decide to reboot the Tomb Raider series, Mojin leaves little doubt that it should be Shu Qi who steps into the shoes of Angelina Jolie. But then again, she’s Asian, so who are we kidding. For what it’s looking to aspire to though, the CGI effects are convincingly grand, proving that Mainland China is certainly getting ever closer to matching Hollywood productions in terms of effect work. The problem is that, convincingly grand doesn’t necessarily mean they’re exciting, and Mojin displays a certain over reliance on repetition to provide its thrills.
During the initial flashback sequence, the accidental tomb raiders are confronted by a horde of Japanese zombies, seemingly brought to life by some mysterious force. Later on in present day, the same thing happens, with hardly any variance from when the same event was shown earlier in the movie. The rickety rope bridge trope is also used several times, each one presenting a slightly different problem, but there’s never any getting away from the fact that again, characters are facing a precarious situation on a rickety rope bridge.
Western audiences will also find plenty to roll their eyes at in the flashback scenes to when Kun, Bo, and AngelaBaby were members of the Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The script sets up a love triangle between the trio, which never convinces, and further shoots itself in the foot later by never explaining how Shu Qi entered the scene. During the flashback scene the Mao era seems to be treated as a time of cultural purity, with plenty of patriotic songs being sung while riding on the back of a pickup truck, and members waving the Chinese flag around for no other reason than it’s probably in the script. When the group come across a series of statues that they believe go against what the Cultural Revolution stands for, they decide to destroy them while chanting, “We are materialists. True materialists are fearless!” Scenes like this translate poorly to a foreign audience, coming across more like propaganda than a coherent part of the story.
The awkwardness also applies to Mojin’s attempts at comedy, with a series of oddly timed comic dialogue which tend to result in a furrowing of the brow rather than the desired laugh. One aspect that definitely succeeds in drawing a laugh though is Bo’s hair. In a bizarre attempt to differentiate his character from what he looks like in the flashback scenes, the 41 year old actor has been given a hairstyle which looks like it belongs on a member of a Korean boy-band 20 years his junior. Think Donnie Yen’s hair on the promotional posters for Iceman 3D, then add some extra volume, and what’s left almost warrants its own credit. It’s a highpoint of the movie.
Other characters in Mojin don’t fare much better. Liu Xiao-Qing is decidedly one-note as the villain of the piece who wants the Equinox Flower for herself, while Cherry Ngan Cheuk Ling, playing her psychotic Japanese bodyguard, seems to have been designed on Wu Jing’s psychotic villain from Sha Po Lang. She could well be his characters female twin. Worst of all though is Xia Yu, who plays the broker between Xiao-Qing and the Mojin, and is essentially the comedy foil. Yu’s performance is guaranteed to make even the most jaded viewer more Dean Shek tolerant, as whenever he’s onscreen it’s an almost unbearable barrage of whining and gurning. If his job description was to play a character who has the irritating level turned up to 11, then he did an outstanding job.
Despite all the epic scale destruction on display, complete with explosions, zombies, collapsing bridges, and booby traps, in the final minutes it’s also unintentionally hammered home that we’re watching a Mainland China production. With a ban on showing anything considered supernatural, Kun is burdened with a clunky line in which he explains that he and Bo’s visions of AngelaBaby are due to their own guilt and obsession with her. As if that wasn’t enough, we get a double whammy as Shu Qi gets to explain away everything mystical that’s happened so far, with a completely throwaway line in which she reveals that the Equinox Flower is “just a meteorite, its light makes people hallucinate.” Passing off the zombie scenes as hallucinations is perhaps the movies best comedy moment. After watching Mojin, I now have to deal with my own guilt at witnessing such an inconsistent piece of filmmaking, I only hope the guilt doesn’t make me have visions of it, as once was enough.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10