Director: Zhao Xiaoding, Anthony LaMolinara
Cast: Liu Yifei, Yang Yang, Luo Jin, Yan Yikuan, Li Chun, Gu Xuan, Peng Zisu
Runtime: 1 hr 49 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 24 August 2017
Synopsis: Based on the best-selling fantasy novel Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, ONCE UPON A TIME is a story of epic battles, deep passion and the powerful forces that drive mortals and gods alike toward revenge, loyalty and eternal love. Bai Qian, a goddess and monarch from the Heavenly Realms, is sent to the mortal world to undergo a trial to become a High Goddess. There, she meets Ye Hua, with whom she falls in love and marries. When an old enemy reappears in her lift, everything she holds dear is threatened.
Movies that have mass appeal around the world might not actually generate a buzz in the massive China market. Similarly, what actually works for the China market might not work for the rest of the world. Once Upon A Time is one such title that belongs to the latter. This fantasy thriller has so much going on that it is probably incomprehensible to the general audience who just want a silly fun time in the multiplexes.
Within the first ten minutes, we are treated to a generous dosage of countless characters ranging from immortals to creatures that could transfigure from human to animal form at will to locations that range from one heavenly realm to another. It’s no doubt an epic fantasy that could rival The Lord of the Rings but unfortunately just like the recent Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, the audiences do not have the luxury to indulge in the lush story instead we are given a much scale-down and hurried screen adaptation of the Chinese novel, the mouthful Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms.
Anyway the themes of the story happened to be karma and reincarnation although the watered down story is more about the tragic romance between a thousand year Nine-Tail Fox Goddess, Bai Qian (Liu Yifei) and the Heavenly Crown Prince, Ye Hua (Yang Yang). We shall not delve into the complicated love life of Bai Qian and Ye Hua except to say that no matter how many times Bai Qian reincarnated herself (irregardless as the mortal Susu or immortal Bai Qian), she ends up falling back in love with Ye Hua. Then there is the Demon Emperor Qin Cang lurking in the background waiting to be resurrected to create havoc in the Heavenly realm.
Despite three credited writers and two directors at the helm, famed cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (The Great Wall, Coming Home) and special-effects guru Anthony LaMolinara (Spider-Man 2), Once Upon A Time struggles to tell a coherent story that is filled with multiple muddling timeline and flashbacks. It’s too hard to differentiate the past and the present and to rub salt to the wound, the excruciating one-note performances by Liu Yifei and Yang Yang doesn’t help things either. When a child actor by the name of Peng Zisu (who plays the son of Bai Qian and Ye Hua) is much more entertaining as a comic relief character, you know the story is in deep trouble.
But not all is lost in Once Upon A Time. The dazzling CGI, which obviously require numerous hardworking CG artists for the post-production work, is very much an achievement by itself. The backdrops look liked hand-drawn Chinese paintings, the sets meticulously detailed and the costumes amazingly tailored. Zhao who over the years has served as acclaimed director Zhang Yimou’s regular cinematographer has indeed inherited his talent for visual. The overall CGI standard is more than decent especially a rousing battle with a strange gigantic creature. Jack Ma’s Alibaba Pictures outfit and the rest of the 20 or more co-production companies have indeed spare no expenses on the technical aspects, it’s a pity they forgot to add some eye-popping effects to the dreary plotting.
(Once Upon A Time is liked a prolonged music video, it’s nice to look at but nevertheless an empty spectacle that never really touches your heart)
Review by Linus Tee