THE YIN-YANG MASTER: DREAM OF ETERNITY (晴雅集) (NETFLIX) (2021)
SYNOPSIS: Every few hundred years a powerful immortal demon awakens. The four Yin-Yang Masters come together to summon the guardians of the realm and push back the demon. When one of the Masters is murdered, the other three must find out who is responsible for his death and replace the Master in order to keep the realm safe. The Princess of the kingdom has her own plans for the demon and its power to grant eternal life. She and the head of the royal guard conspire behind the Yin-Yang Masters' backs to claim this power for their own purposes.
As lavish a sword-and-sorcery fantasy as it gets, ‘The Yin Yang Master’ sees the titular protagonist play a Detective Dee-like character named Qingming who is summoned to the Imperial City to protect the Empress from an evil serpent. The same serpent is responsible for the death of his beloved master in the opening scene, and with his dying breath, tells Qingming that he needs not only to know how to attack but also to defend aggressively, and to find the one thing he would risk his life protecting in order to summon his true potential.
Qingming is not alone in his mission. He is accompanied by Boya (Allen Deng Lun), a master archer who grows immediately suspicious of Qingming when the latter stops him from vanquishing a demon he caught stealing a sacred pipa from the city; Longye (Jessie Li). Rounding up the quartet is Longye (Jessie Li), whose skill is in discerning motivations and disguises, and Shouyue (Duo Wang), a near-expressionless priest who bears an uncanny (and deliberate) resemblance to Qingming’s late master. These pugilists find their lives threatened by a demon who has already murdered Shouyue’s predecessor by strangling him around the neck, and must figure out who is plotting the release of the serpent before it is released into the world.
Styled after Tsui Hark’s ‘Detective Dee’ series, writer-director Guo Jingming’s plotting unfolds like a murder mystery, with each of the four masters taking turns to be at the centre of suspicion. It isn’t hard to guess though that the machinations have to do with the seemingly young and innocent Princess (Yang Ziwen), whose life Qingming saves by extracting the worm demon from under her skin. Neither would it come as any surprise that it has something to do with Shouyue, who behaves from the very start like he wants us to know that he is up to no good.
To be fair to Guo, the story turns out a lot more nuanced than we had assumed, especially as it dives into the relationship between Qingming’s late master and the Princess, ruminating on how grief and joy, partings and meetings, and life and death are inevitabilities in life. We dare say it gets unexpectedly poignant during the last half-hour, giving the characters depth and meaning that had hitherto been absent from the mix of slick costumes, impressive production design and exciting swordplay which made it more a visual treat than anything else in particular.
It is clear that no expense has been spared to make the visuals look absolutely gorgeous; indeed, presented in Dolby Vision, those with a 4K TV will probably agree that the images look even more stunning and remarkable than if you were to watch it in the cinemas. But is also equally clear that Guo has drawn from Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ in designing the action, with Qingming’s use of portals to travel from one point or location in time to another especially reminiscent of the latter’s powers of sorcery – and if you know the controversy that had led to the movie being pulled from Mainland Chinese cinemas just 10 days into its release, you’ll probably be even more sensitive to the similarities.
Notwithstanding that, we must say the pleasures of ‘The Yin Yang Master: Dream of Eternity’ remain undiminished. This is as sumptuous a period action fantasy as it gets, and though the pacing could have been tighter, there is still enough intrigue and mystery in the plotting to keep you engaged. Like we said earlier, it does also muster enough profundity to be more than just a pretty but shallow picture. We haven’t said much about the actors in their roles, because frankly the performances here, even that of Chao in the titular role, is just passable. Still, for the scale, effort and sheer grandiosity, it is as entertaining, transporting and moving as dreams should be..
Review by Gabriel Chong