Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/06/19 17:41:45

"Ancient aliens, dragons, spontaneous combustion, and more!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Tian Xia Ba Chang's "Ghost Blows Out the Light" novels don't appear to be available in English, but I get the idea from the other movies that have been made from them that this takes a few liberties, for better or worse. Fortunately, there's no particular need to force them into any sort of single continuity, and though this particular take is less swashbuckling adventure than monster movie, it's generally a pretty good one.

It opens with a montage of strange discoveries in China during the twentieth century, culminating with the discovery of strange fossils beneath the Yunnan Mountains in the 1970s. Hu Bayi (Mark Zhao You-ting) is doing his military service there in 1979, nursing a crush on nurse Yang Ping (Yao Chen) - whose father (Wang Qingxiang) is leading the excavation - when an explosion in the shaft reveals hidden chambers and passages which are filled with evidence of a lost civilization and lethal creatures. Hu Bayi survives, soon placed in a new job where he's reunited with childhood friend "Fatty" Wang Kaixuan (Feng Li), not knowing that a secret government bureau is holding the Yangs - at least, not until monsters lay waste to an Oil town and he is called in to assist.

The opening segment of this movie is propulsive, fast-paced pulp, probably too fast to be maintained, but it's throwing cool ideas, mysteries, and even a bit of a barbed sense of humor at the audience just fast enough to be absorbed before Hu Bayi and Yang Ping go into the cave and all heck breaks loose. Screenwriter/director Lu Chuan puts the audience in a good position to pick things up on the run, and hits just the right tone. It's a sort of light luridness, combining the excitement of discovering new things with the fact that action of this type does often involve people dying horribly. He keeps just enough of a toehold on the real world that he can eventually dial it back and build back up to more fantasy, although the sharp jump out of this segment is a bit jarring.

Taking all the neat things being thrown out there and building them into an actual story is trickier; there's not really a whole lot for Hu do while the secret government agency does what it does behind the scenes, and a lot of what he does learn is fed to him by a mysterious benefactor. It doesn't exactly get boring, per se, but Lu kind of hoards his information, saving it all for a gut punch or two near the end. The movie chugs along for a while that way, keeping things going, doing a fair job of tying things together, although if it were being done as a TV series, that's definitely the point where you'd have some monster-of-the-week episodes to keep Hu Bayi busy while the conspiracy did its thing.

Mark Zhao is a decent Hu Bayi, who is generally not the cocky adventurer you traditionally see in these sort of adventures, and his take even more so; though smart and capable, this Hu is damaged and muted, using obsession to grieve the whole time and kind of letting his being smart and capable hide in the corner. It's not the sort of take that makes for an iconic character, but it fits Lu's take on the movie. He's got a good foil in Feng LI's Wang Kaixuan (although Li comes in mid-way, replacing a similar character), and Yao Chen does nice work as both the sweet Yang Ping and her more aggressive "Shirley" persona. Wang Qingxiang dives into mad scientist mode when finally given the go-ahead.

Mostly, though, this is a monster movie, and the visual effects guys deliver the goods with various sizes of dragons, hidden temples, spontaneous combustion, and nasty little bat things. The CGI is pretty good, if not quite up to the standards of a $200M American production. Sometimes the fact that it's clearly designed with 3D and giant screens in mind makes it feel a little off when viewed at home, but it's still fun to look at, and Lu does make sure there's just enough story to make things seem dangerous.

Other producers would go in different directions making movies out of these books (and soon - "Mojin: The Lost Legend" came out about three months after this film!), concentrating more on treasure hunting and less on ancient aliens and dragons. This is, nevertheless, likely my favorite of the three - it's big and nuts, but in a way that doesn't seem like they're pasting more visual effects on the story, and has occasionally nasty pulpy fun without winking at the audience.

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