'Men in Black: Ancient Asia Style' In Wonky Wuxia Flop 'Dunjia'

Directed by: Yuen Woo-ping; Runtime: 113 minutes
Grade: D+

Yuen Woo-ping may be best known for his work as a fight choreographer, but he has also served as the de-facto director for several of the greats from the martial arts genre, from Drunken Master to Iron Monkey and Tai-Chi Master. One common thread between those works is that the hand-to-hand battles are strung together by relatively straightforward and unobtrusive stories, allowing the physicality of the actors and the combat itself to move around unencumbered from the weight of too-much narrative. The Thousand Faces of Dunjia couldn't be more different from Yuen Woo-ping's earlier work if it tried, in which fantasy-laden storytelling swirls together with copious computer-generated effects to tell an overly-complicated tale of warring factions, clandestine aliens, prophesized leaders and weapons required by powerful monster-like critters to conquer the earth. Between swaths of dizzying plotting and visuals, very little genuine martial-arts action goes down, amounting to a peculiarly labored, somewhat deceptive, and mostly unbearable blockbuster from China.

Shortly after he's accepted into a local law-enforcement regiment, fresh-faced officer Dao (Aarif Lee) gets sent on a wild goose chase by his superiors, a means of both hazing him and forcing him out of the department. While searching for perps, Dao stumbles upon a suspicious individual that draws him into something unexpected: a world of alien-like monsters, and the clan of warriors who monitor them and keep them under wraps. Upon his meeting with Metal Dragonfly (Ni Ni), the clan discovers the emergence of a plot for the aliens to come out of hiding and reclaim the world, while also dealing with the discovery of their new, predestined leader in a most unexpected place. While the clan remains skeptical of Dao, they tentatively team up with the constable to take on those mythical forces, rushing to gain ownership of a particular weapon and unlock their own deeply-hidden powers before time runs out.

Written by frequent Yuen Woo-ping collaborator Tsui Hark -- who had a hand in creating the successful Chinese Ghost Story and Detective Dee fantasy franchises -- The Thousand Faces of Dunjia is a pure chunk of blockbuster whimsy, packed full of recognizable tropes and borrowed devices from other films. Something that goes mostly undisclosed by the trailers, this ends up trying to be a low-key rehash of Men in Black, of all things, in its story of hidden "aliens" and the clandestine police force that keeps the truth hidden while quashing threats. It was the point when Metal Dragonfly uses "memory moths" to make someone forget everything they've seen to a specific time and place that the similarities become clear, as did the script's awkward efforts to force that angle upon the ancient Chinese period. Couple that with unnecessarily dense plotting involving superpowers conveniently bottled up in orbs, random selection of leaders for the organization regardless of age, and intense monsters that require specific weapons for whatever reason, and you've got an unbelievable mess of a story that's simply too much.

Labored plotting like this can blend into the background of fantasy-action films, though, offering just enough to prop up up tentpole sequences and the intended signature elements of the film's momentum, assumed here to be martial-arts complexity based off the creatives forces involved. Instead, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia becomes overwhelmingly focused on bountiful computer-generated effects bringing monsters and superpowers to life, with very little genuine hand-to-hand combat. As if Yuen Woo-ping and Tsui Hark received a directive to jack up the outlandishness and idiosyncrasy from the popular Chinese Ghost Story remakes or Tsui Hark's own Detective Dee, the unnatural presence of monsters are prioritized in action sequences over natural human battles. Wings flap, fish flop around, worm-like tendrils wiggle in the air, and humans morph into other humans or towering, colorful beasts … yet the visual grandeur here plays more like distractions from what's not there, emotional substance and martial-arts engagement, than actual interest in the outrageousness being executed.

Between unconvincing swaths of computer wizardry, the humans of The Thousand Faces of Dunjia take stabs at blatant humor and prolonged over-explaining of what's ultimately an ordinary tale of good vs. evil. Peculiar sexist humor and behavior -- especially the repeated use of obligatory face-slaps as punishment for fraternization among the clan -- lend an awkwardness to the film's exuberance that accomplishes little beyond stalling its momentum, producing many points where one wishes they'd all just shut up and start fighting. Once that actually does happen, they engage in battles driven far more by sorcery than actual martial arts, and while the particle effects involving smoke and water can be somewhat fun to watch, their contact with the real world stays a few steps behind a credible level of tangibility. Ending abruptly in a way that can't decide whether to start a franchise or quickly wrap things up because those plans were cancelled, Dunjia winds up being a clumsy, weakly-telegraphed thud from Yuen Woo-ping.

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