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  Publicity Stills of "A Chinese Tall Story"
(Courtesy from Shaw)

Genre: Comedy/Fantasy
Director: Jeff Lau
Starring: Nicolas Tse, Charlene Choi, Chan Po-Lin, Fan Bing Bing
RunTime: 1 hr 43 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: PG

Opening Day: 22 December 2005


A Chinese Tall Story tells a little-known tale about the Tang Monk, Tripitaka, before he embarks on his arduous journey to bring the sacred sutras from the west, and achieves deification after successfully negotiating Eight-One Tasks to prove his faith and resolve.

As we see them for the first time, the Tang Monk is leading his three disciples into the city of Shache. No one would know that it is here that the boyishly innocent Tripitaka will meet his greatest challenge.

After a fierce battle, his disciples are captured by the evil Tree Spirits. Tripitaka luckily escapes. Undaunted, he sets off on his own to find a way to save his disciples, only to fall into the hands of the Lizard King and his army of Amazonian imps. Tripitaka is placed in the custody of Meiyan, a young imp who is the personification of ugliness. Meiyan falls in love with him at first sight: not for his flesh – which brings immortality if devoured, but for his passion. So from then on, the love-struck imp stalks Tripitaka every hour of the day. Not only does she make fun of him, she also sets a love trap for him. Unwittingly, Tripitaka falls into the trap and violates the Heavenly Code.

In the ancient and mythical past, not only are spirits plentiful, so are forms of life from unknown sources. Princess is one of them. She is quite a rebel even by today’s standard: resisting a pre-set marriage, and turning herself into an inter-galactic runaway. Like so many before her, this unearthly beauty falls at once for the cool but handsome Tripitaka. Meiyan instinctively senses competition, picks a fight with Xiaoshan but loses. She warns Tripitaka off her, but the Tang Monk will have none of it. Harshly branding Meiyan a love-cheat, Tripitaka decides to side with Xiaoshan instead. Meiyan is deeply hurt. In the meantime, Xiaoshan tries to help the Tang Monk rescue his disciples, but is no match for the Tree Spirits. As her alien army is about to be routed, a brave warrior selflessly throws herself into the fray. It is a brand new Meiyan – an ugly duckling no more. The war is won in spectacular fashion.

After Meiyan risked her life to rescue Tripitaka and his disciples, she gives herself up to be judged by the Temple of Heaven. Tripitaka is torn between passion and righteousness, and is forced to raid the Heavenly Palace for the gallows-bound Meiyan. After an epic and bloody struggle, the two are pardoned and sent back to earth by a benevolent Buddha. There they commence their westward journey with the Tang Monk’s three disciples – Meiyan in the form of a white mare as token punishment – striving to accomplish the Eighty-One Tasks and save the world.

Movie Review:

If you grew up watching Hong Kong slapstick movies in the 1990s, you’d remember Stephen Chow playing the legendary Monkey God Sun Wukong in A Chinese Odyssey (1994) and its brilliant follow-up sequel in the same year.

After more than 10 years, director Jeff Lau is back with another twist on the well-loved Chinese classic Journey to the West. With a larger budget and vast improvements in technology, this movie falls into the convenient trap of losing focus and the essence of telling a proper story.

Touted as what is supposed to be the retelling of a love story that happened during the Journey to the West, the movie begins with Tripitaka leading his three infamous disciples into the city of Sache. There, the three of them get captured by an evil tree spirit. It is then up to the holy monk to save his three pupils. The twist comes when he begins falling in love with a young imp who personifies ugliness.

The premise does sound interesting, and this is the same director who gave us the wonderful Chinese Odyssey 2002 (2002) starring Tony Leung and Faye Wong. Underneath the laughs of his last work, there was a touching story which made audience feel for the characters. But his latest offering seems to be more interested in showing what it is capable of, rather than telling a good story.

There were countless scenes in the 103-minute movie which featured spectacular visual effects achieved with cutting-edge technology and post production graphic work. In fact, there were a few battle scenes which felt like carbon copies of video games young boys would enjoy a lot.

Not only are the computer generated effects showy, the cast in the movie makes a point to make you notice them as well. Take Charlene Choi for example - yes, the hideous make-up of the imp she plays does amuse for a while. But one would have to bear with her annoying imp character for over an hour before she morphs into her beautiful self.

Cantopop bad boy Nicholas Tse makes an attempt to breakthrough his cool image by playing the irritating sensitive new-age monk, which can be rather exasperating to watch after a while. He is just not as endearing as Law Kar Ying’s Tripitaks in 1994’s A Chinese Odyssey.

Elsewhere, there are other supporting characters played by Chen Bo-lin, Fan Bingbing and Isabella Leung. Old-school actors like Yuen Wah, Hu Hui Chung and Kenny Bee pop up as cameo characters, and they are truly a joy to watch.

The movie gets high points for its production value though. The sets are beautiful and breathtaking, thanks to the vivid imagination of the art director Bill Lui. There should also be kudos to costume designer William Chang for his fantastic interpretations of the outfits worn by the many deities, monsters and humans in the movie.

One particular outstanding aspect of the movie is its soundtrack score. Composer Joe Hisaishi, who is also Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s muse when it comes to music, has done a very good job for this movie. Calming woodwinds are suitably used to bring out a character’s heartfelt emotions, while harsh brasses escalate the war between good and evil to another level.

Too bad then, that these strong points cannot bring the movie to greater heights. With recycled lines from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s movies, and several other physical slapstick jokes which do not come through, the whole movie feels directionless at times.

However, this may not be an entirely bad thing. As long as this movie does not take itself too seriously like the other fantasy epic The Promise, which is also in cinemas now, it can still quite enjoyable.

Towards the end of the movie, there is some decent attempt to relay some thought-provoking messages about love and sacrifice, and these themes are brought out quite affectingly. However, the damage done before that still makes the movie short of becoming a memorable cinematic experience.

Movie Rating:

(The movie boasts of impressive visuals and music, but this tall story may still fall short for viewers with high expectations)

Review by John Li


. The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

. An Empress And The Warriors (2008)

. The Warlords (2007)

. The Curse of the Golden Flowers (2006)

. A Battle of Wits (2006)

. Seven Swords (2005)

. The Myth (2005)

. House of Flying Daggers (2004)


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