Director: Peter Pau, Zhao Tianyu
Writer: Junli Guo, Ray Lei Jin, Huanhuan Zhang
Cast: Chen Kun, Li Bing Bing, Winston Chiu, Bao Bei Er, Jike Junyi, Yang Zishan, Huan Huang, Wenbo Luo, Yidi Hou, Maidina, Zhiyi Ren, Xiangyi Ma, Peter Pau
Running Time: 118 min.
By Kyle Warner
There was a time, not long ago, when people would flock to the theatre to see a movie because of its special effects. CGI has forever changed our movies, no doubt about it. But it’s not the shiny new thing anymore. Now CGI, when used properly, is just another filmmaking tool used to bring a story to life. CGI may be considered somewhat commonplace in today’s movies but audiences hold their special effects to a certain standard. Bad CGI, perhaps more than any other special effects technique, really hurts a movie. In Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, there is no shortage of bad CGI and after a while it sinks the otherwise bright and energetic production.
Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (aka Zhongkui) is the story of the legendary demon slayer from Chinese mythology, Zhong Kui. Typically depicted as a scruffy looking big guy, Zhong Kui is here played by the considerably less scruffy looking Chen Kun (Painted Skin: The Resurrection). Once every millennium there is a day when the demons in Hell can seek reincarnation with the use of the Dark Crystal. The heroic Zhong Kui is tasked with defending the Dark Crystal in the city of Hu, where the demons will most certainly attempt to steal it away. Sure enough, a group of demons disguised as beautiful female entertainers arrive in the days before the reincarnation event. The group is led by the enchanting Snow Girl (Li Bingbing), who resembles a woman from Zhong Kui’s past. Distracted by memories of a lost love, Zhong Kui’s defenses weaken at the most inopportune moment.
The film’s worldbuilding somehow feels both dense and underdeveloped. I didn’t always understand what was happening or why, though it’s possible that Chinese audiences — or those more versed in the mythology — would follow it with less difficulty. In the end, I decided to just sit back and go with it. While I found the film’s fantasy elements to be a bit muddled, the romance at the center of the film works rather well thanks to two likable leads in Chen Kun and Li Bingbing. Their love becomes a Romeo and Juliet sort of thing, as the demon slayer is expected to kill demons without exception, but Zhong Kui cannot deny the love he feels for the snow demon. It’s well played when the actors are on screen. However, too often the film drops the actors entirely, opting for CGI created characters in both action and drama sequences, with lackluster results.
Zhong Kui is given a magical fan that allows him to unleash his inner demon: a ten foot tall warrior made out of rock and lava. For much of the film’s action sequences, it’s this giant hulking version of Zhong Kui that’s fighting off the villains, not the actor Chen Kun. I would not normally be against this – I enjoy a good superhero movie – but the CGI used to create the characters in the film leaves much to be desired. While backgrounds and environmental special effects stand up well to Hollywood productions, CGI character movements are choppy and stiff, reminding me of cutscenes from videogames made in the late 90s.
Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is co-directed by Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu. Peter Pau is a cinematographer of some esteem, having shot a wide range of films including The Killer, Dracula 2000, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (for which Pau won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography). As a director, Pau’s credits are limited. Pau’s previous directorial effort was the Michelle Yeoh misfire The Touch back in 2002. Pau also serves as Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal’s cinematographer and the film is better for it, nicely showing off the impressive set pieces, costumes, and cast. Though Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal boasts some decent production values, the film’s script has its problems, resulting in an occasionally bumpy ride. Pau and Zhao seem to turn to special effects as a storytelling crutch, even though it’s clear that the special effects were the area of the film that needed help the most. The result is a film that’s very rough around the edges and sometimes feels strangely unfinished.
The film arrives on Blu-ray thanks to the good folks at Well Go USA. The picture presentation looks good, even if some of the special effects look almost twenty years old. For sound we get a 5.1 and 2.0 original Mandarin audio. The Blu-ray’s special features include a 5 minute featurette on the film’s impressive score by composer Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth) and a 10 minute featurette on the film’s special effects.
Co-directors Pau and Zhao give Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal plenty of chaotic energy, however they fall short of making it connect as a memorable piece of entertainment. A better script would’ve helped matters, but the real problem here is the heavy reliance on substandard CGI to tell the story. The special effects don’t work, so neither does the movie.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5/10