Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (Zhong Kui fu mo: Xue yao mo ling, 2015)

Poster for Zhong Kui

This is a big budget Chinese fantasy shot in 3D and heavily mediated with computer graphics. It’s practically an animated movie, and long sections of it are purely CG. The protagonist, Zhong Kui, is apparently a famous demon-slayer in Chinese mythology, although I don’t recall seeing movies about him before. If the visuals of the film have a video game quality, it could be that film is actually based as much on a video game as on mythology.

The basic scenario is that there are three realms in the world: gods, humans, and demons. Every millennium the demons have a chance to reincarnate themselves as humans or gods, and the gods are worried that the demons are about use this millennial opportunity to take over the human world via a soul collector called the Dark Crystal. They send a god named Zhang Daoxian to help the humans defend themselves and the Dark Crystal, and he chooses Zhong Kui to be his demon-slaying human apprentice. But gradually we learn that Zhong Kui is in love with a beautiful demon named Snow Girl, and soon loyalties and love are being tested in all directions.

Some of the CG isn’t all that great, but some of it is really quite beautiful. The demon designs seem a bit too generic to me, and I’m curious how Westernized this looks to Chinese audiences. It reminded me to a certain extent of Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Tall Story, although this movie isn’t quite as goofy. It also has epic fantasy elements similar to films by Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark. At times the characters of Zhong Kui and Snow Girl almost seemed like superheroes with specialized superpowers, except it’s all couched in Chinese mythology and traditional concepts of souls and the seven spirits in each human. At times it felt to me like the concepts of heaven and hell were Westernized or even Christianized, but in the end the relationship between gods and demons is not as Manichean as a Christian view would have it. Imagine, for example, a tragic love story between Lucifer and Eve in which it turns out that Gabriel is actually the bad guy.

It works pretty well for what it is, although it does feel pretty rote. As I say, some of the visuals look kind of cheap and derivative by the highest standards, but there’s still plenty of beauty to be found in it. I especially found that depiction of Snow Girl in her demon mode as a kind of whirling blizzard to be quite beautiful, and the use of swirling, glittering trails of coins, snow, and dazzling magic bolts in 3D was frequently pleasing to the eye. It’s probably mostly aimed at adolescents, but as a fan of Chinese fantasy — and of heroic fantasy in general — I found enough in it to enjoy it over all.

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