By Dr. Craig D. Reid
The Tsui Hark produced/written and Yuen Wo Ping directed/action choreographed The Thousand Faces of Dunjia is a VFX saturated far out, fast and furious, female driven fant-Asia film that is derived from a foundation of wuxia (martial chivalrous hero stories) Chinese literature spanning back to the Warring States period (475 BC) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
When American critics claim Tsui is rehashing Marvel/DC superhero films, where today’s Marvel/DC writers are creating stories from an 80-year-old origin, Tsui was writing comics for a Vietnamese newspaper in 1961, using a 2000 year-old framework. It wouldn’t surprise me if Marvel’s Martin Goodman and DC’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster explored Chinese comic book shops in local Chinatowns in the 1930s for inspiration.
In 1982, Western trained film director Tsui teamed up with Shaw Brothers wire expert Ching Siu Tung to create the mind numbing film, Zu, Warriors from Magic Mountain (1983) that visually towered above the period piece film of the 1970s and also laid the foundation for a new genre of kung fu movies known as fant-Asia films.
This unique genre evolved into a seductive wild mix of horror, sex, sorcery, fantasy, science fiction and swordplay films. With better filmmaking technology Tsui and Ching brought to life the magical and mythical qualities that wuxia novel authors had envisioned. They revamped and stylized wuxia films by injecting frenetic paced over-the-top action mixed with far-out sight gags and gravity defying wire-fu, which Hollywood has been trying perfect since Matrix (1999), which featured action fights by Yuen Wo Ping. Yet, what Tsui fantastically pulled off with a red sheet in Zu, he revisits the sheet motif in Dunjia.
In the vein of wuxia and fant-Asia films, Dunjia also features many characters with crazy-ass fighting skills, where heroes venture off on their own adventures and their interpersonal and intra-personal relationships can have subtleties that confuse Western filmgoers. Yet at the end of the day, the narrative rumbles along and conclusively pitches the usual thematic device of good vs. bad for a home run, where the bad is stronger and the good must find a novel way to overcome evil before the world is destroyed.
When facing spirits, ghosts, devils and monsters, Chinese heroes have more than amazing fighting abilities, their weapon arsenal includes Taoist necromancy and alchemy, Muo Shan Shu sorcery, I-Ching divination and feng shui energy reading. Tsui’s Thousand Faces of Dunjia and Yuen’s directed Miracle Fighters (1982) have a non coincidental relation…the Chinese title of both films is Qimen Dunjia, where Qimen Dunjia is an ancient occult school whose strategy of war goes beyond anything Sun Tzu’s Art of War would cover. Yet the film’s are completely different.
In Tsui’s film, while a meteor Armageddonly speeds toward Earth, our deliverers from evil, the seven-member Wuyin Sect, who have inherited Qimen’s magical skills, is distracted from the evil that lurks as they chase a giant devil carp through China’s capital Kaifeng. This is a clue as to when the film takes place, as Kaifeng was the Chinese capital only during the Song dynasty.
When the alarm is finally raised, the Sect’s Big Brother (Taiwanese rock star Wu Bai) heads out in search of the Destroyer of Worlds, the ultimate weapon that can stop the upcoming alien monster invasion, the precursor of which emerges from the Armageddon meteor and who also wants to find the weapon. Big Brother must unite with the other four Sect leaders of the kung fu underworld at Dragon Gate Cave in order figure out how to use the weapon.
The use of the Five Sect Leaders concept in fant-Asia films is modeled after the wuxia legend, Feng Ching-yang, aka the Smiling Proud Wanderer, a character from the wuxia novel Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. For the best film adaptation of this story see the Jet Li starring, Ching directed Sworsdman 2 (1992). In the book, the lead group of the fictional Five Mountain Sword Sects Alliance in the world of Wulin (the kung fu underworld) is the Huashan Sect. In Dunjia, the Wuyin Sect is comparable to the Huashan Sect. Also, the novel’s initial plot evolves around the coveted kung fu scroll, Bi Xie Swordplay Manual, in Dunjia it’s the Destroyer of Worlds weapon.
Meanwhile, the adhoc leader, Zhuge (Da Peng) is on a mission to find the Sect’s mysterious and mythical anointed leader, who can activate the Destroyer. Zhuge’s only clue is that a small circular tattoo would be found on the leader’s forearm. He sort of succeeds as he firmly believes that their fearless leader to be is a young maiden waif is locked up in a mental ward.
With the sole female Sect member Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni) now in charge of their In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida world (nod to those of you into the roots of heavy metal), the remaining Sect members’ mission is to prevent the Armageddon monster from hooking up with its Earthbound counterpart, which is trapped in their hidden underground cave headquarters. As Armageddon creature smashes into the cave in the form of a giant wormy-stranded looking flying bat, amidst their battle, rube police constable Dao Yichang (Aarif Lee Rahman) becomes an accidental hero and saves everyone’s life, but they can’t stop wormy beast from flying off with the enormous blue, harpie-like demonic Earth-bound creature.
Elsewhere, as the Five Sect leaders meet at Dragon Gate Cave, Big Brother realizes that the other four leaders have become the pawns of the unified alien monsters, which under their spell, the four sect leaders have become too powerful for Big Brother. Though he barely escapes alive, he was unable to prevent the monsters from acquiring the coveted weapon. The world is screwed.
At this point, Dunjia becomes a VFX spectacle rife with CGI monsters that border on anime, intricate high wire derring do and not so much proper martial arts physicality as compared to sophisticated posturing, kung fu poses, and contorted finger and hand gestures that in this film are a more subtle way to reveal each of the characters’ awesome fighting abilities and magical martial know how. The same holds true for weapon use.
One of the engaging fight sequences in a ghost town is when the leader of the Tang Sect that surrounds himself with frisbie-sized flying circular blades, hauntingly walks toward members of the Wuyin sect. As the ominous blades dangerously hover around his energy, the sect’s leader beautifully taps into his force using kung fu arm movement that extravagantly wields his blades without touching them. Thor holds and throws his hammer, Storm creates weather patterns by glazing her eye and spreading her arms, and Kylo Ren and Rey hold their lightsabres using simplistic postures that don’t create the same awe, flash and cool that Chinese superheroes and villains do with their full body expressional approaches, which are all related via the kung fu nature of their background.
Thus in the kung fu world, which Asian audiences are more attuned into than Western audiences, one can tell which characters are good fighters or warriors based on these nuances and so they don’t always need to see an elongated fight scene to learn how skilled they are. However, Asian audience also expect at some point to see the full blown physical fighting grandeur of the stars and stuntmen, and these expectations are more compounded when someone like Yuen is the movie’s director/action choreographer.
Yet at the film’s end, the heroes discuss what they need to do to find and destroy the main threat to Earth, the Spiritual Lord, and how they can increase their combat skills. Based on the various paths of choice and the evolution of each character’s fighting abilities in Dungjia, the sequel is set up in a way, I hope, that will make for a truly engaging and most rewarding physical martial arts sequel…not unlike The Last Jedi.