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Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be human.

It’s obvious that Mural (画壁) was supposed to be the next logical step in epochal Sino filmmaking on a big budget. A grand and sweeping ghost romance set against the backdrop of ancient China and a spectral world of immense ethereal magnificence. What was heralded as a spiritual continuation of Tsui Hark’s most oneiric productions Mural desperately wants to be the Zu: the Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) or Green Snake (1993) for this generation. Regrettably it ended up leaning closer to Dragon Chronicles – the Maidens From Heavenly Mountain (1994) than anything else, which is probably not what the directors intended. Mural was promoted as the next Chinese epic. Mural has a lot to offer on the visual end but has nothing substantial beyond just about every kind of superficial eye-candy. There’s no contesting that Mural is a veritable feast for the eyes and the gathered ensemble cast is ravishingly beautiful, but somehow we can’t shake the impression that Mural should’ve been a lot more than it ended up being. Released the same year as as A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) with Liu Yi-Fei (劉亦菲) and reviled for much of the same reasons Mural can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with prestigious digital effects-heavy box office misfires as Gods Of Egypt (2016), The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) and Mulan (2020).

Director duo Gordon Chan Ka-Seung and Danny Go Lam-Paau are action specialists but in recent years have been attempting to branch out. Chan got his start under Joseph Lai and Jing Wong and his most remembered movies in the western world are Fist of Legend (1994) with Jet Li and The Medallion (2003) with Jackie Chan and Claire Forlani. Danny Go Lam-Paau started under Wellson Chin Sing-Wai. That both men would find their footing in action and comedy is only natural given their beginnings. Painted Skin (2008) was the duo’s first attempt at adapting a story from the Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, anthology from Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling. The basis for the screenplay is Hua Bi, the sixth story in Pu Songling’s collection of “marvel tales”. Mural chronicles the adventures of three men who happen upon an enchanted realm through a temple mural, believing it to be paradise, until the darker forces of that world come calling. The screenplay by Gordon Chan Ka-Seung, Lau Ho-Leung, Frankie Tam Gong-Yuen and Maria Wong Si-Man is faithful to the source material, but stumbles significantly with pacing and characterizations. Obviously Mural is derivative of better properties and it clearly had a decent enough budget. It was an ambitious undertaking reflected in three nominations at the Hong Kong Film Award 2012 - Best New Performer (Shuang Zheng), Best Costume & Make Up Design (Cyrus Ho Kim-Hung and Bo-Ling Ng) and Best Visual Effects (Chris Bremble). Mural desperately wants to impress with its sheer magnitude. Only it never quite gets there.

In ancient China virtuous and timid Confucian scholar Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao) and his loyal servant Hou Xia (Bao Bei-Er) are en route to the capital city for the imperial exams. Zhu plans on becoming a government official and doing good for his people. On the way there they become victims of an attempted robbery by mountain bandit Meng Longtan (Collin Chou Siu-Lung, as Ngai Sing). The three take refuge in a hillside Taoist temple where they are greeted by ascetic monk Budong (Eric Tsang Chi-Wai). In the temple interiors Zhu Xiaolian is drawn to a mural depicting six beautiful women in a vision of Heaven. Zhu is even more intrigued when Mudan (Zheng Shuang), one of the maidens, materializes right near him and he decides to follow her. He soon finds himself in the Land of Ten Thousand Blossoms, home of the fairies and an idyllic gynocracy where male presence is strictly forbidden and punishable by death. To repopulate the maidens drink from an enchanted spring but only are able to bear female offspring. Zhu Xiaolian hides behind Mudan when their Queen (Yan Ni) arrives for her daily inspection after her lovelorn majordomo Shaoyao (Betty Sun Li, as Betty Sun) has conducted the ceremonial assembly. Her Highness is a vain and iron-fisted ruler that requires constant adulation. The sole man of the court entourage is the Golden Warrior, Owl (Andy On Chi-Kit), fierce protector of the maidens and security detail of Her Highness, the Queen. The inspection is interrupted by the Stone Monster who professes his love for Mudan’s best friend, Cui Zhu (Xie Nan) – only to be slain by Owl and the female royal guard. Zhu Xiaolian hides in Shaoyao’s quarters where he unintendedly eavesdrops in on Shaoyao confessing her loniless to her mirror. Shaoyao is none too pleased with him but reluctantly agrees to escort him to Mudan’s dwelling.

He then finds himself back in the Taoist temple but fears that his presence might have put Mudan in grave danger. He wills himself, Hou Xia, and swordmaster Meng Longtan back to the realm where they are promptly surrounded by the royal guard and brought before the Queen’s court. The Queen allows the men access to the queendom and a life of unprecended luxury and abundance on the solitary condition that they each marry one (or more) maiden(s) of their preference or choosing. Philandering Meng Longtan weds downtrodden and submissive Yun Mei (Ada Liu Yan) but soon abandons her for flighty Ding Xiang (Monica Mok Siu-Kei) who voluntarily suggests a polyamorous relationship allowing him to take several concubines, among them Hai Tang (Lyric Lan Ying-Ying, as Yingying Lan). Morally upright Hou Xia cannot stand to see Yun Mei wronged by the boorish thief and marries her to restore her honor. Shaoyao instructs chaste Zhu Xiaolian to marry giggly Cui Zhu which frees him to continue his quest to find Mudan, or the maiden he truly loves. Soon the scholar discovers that the Queen has imprisoned Mudan in the burning pits of the Seventh Heaven for her transgressions. To free Mudan the fairies and the three men have to do battle with all the horrors of and in the underworld. A fierce battle ensues with the fairies and the three men of good emerging victorious but at the price of heavy losses. The queen regnant senses that her time has come and in quiet acquiescence relinquishes her throne and attendant powers to maintain community prosperity. With harmony in the realm restored Zhu Xiaolian and Mudan can finally spend their lives together.

What really kills Mural is its over-reliance on stunningly bad visual effects. Effects that come nowhere close to what television series Ice Fantasy (2016) and Secret Healer (2016) did so wonderfully on the small screen. At best they look like something out of a PlayStation 3 video game cutscene. At worst, as in the Stone Monster battle early on and in various of the Hell scenes, they resemble Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) sequels. While Chris Bremble and his team deliver admirable effects under the circumstances the series Ice Fantasy (2016) did them better. Mainland China still has a long way to go before it will be able to compete with contemporary Hollywood productions. Thankfully not everything about Mural is bad. In its defense it is custodian to some of the most exquisite production design in recent memory. It tells its story on ornately build stages enlived with admittedly great looking green-screen vistas. It decks out the female cast in pastel-colored pan-Asian filigree costumes and truly mesmerizing make-up that often recall Joey Wong in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). However good the costumes they not nearly possess the breadth and detail than those from the historical drama series Empresses in the Palace (2011-2015) or Secret Healer (2016). To its credit there are breathtaking scenery shots of China’s imposing natural wealth and beauty. It’s unfortunate that most of it is wasted on cringeworthy visual effects and a sluggish, aimless screenplay that never really capitalizes on any of its characters and is essentially clueless as to what direction to take the material it has chosen to adapt.

How can Mural simultaneously feel both hopelessly underdeveloped and in need of some rigorous slash-and-burn trimming? Next to the two directors an additional two people contributed to the script and, to be completely frank – it shows. Mural wants to be everything to everybody and thus is a whole lot of nothing. Mural primarily exists by the grace of Zheng Shuang who fills the designated imperiled maiden role with all the needed verve. The love triangle between Zhu Xiaolian, Mudan and Shaoyao is by all accounts what the Pu Songling story evolved around. Here the story’s more fantastic elements take precedence over the romance and that is what becomes Mural’s undoing. There was a great and tragic love story to be told with Mural but the screenplay apparently can’t decide what it wants to be. Early on a lot of resources were spent on the Stone Monster battle which was certainly a nice enough diversion, but it is of no narrative importance. The initial meet-cute between Zhu Xiaolian and Mudan is handled well enough but after that the screenplay seemingly doesn’t know how to develop the courtship and eventual romance between the two and instead bounces in all directions without ever finding an element to focus on. Mural would have been a lot better if the screenplay had been more focused and tighter. As such Mural never develops into a grand-scale fantasy adventure in the way that Zu: the Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) did. Neither does it revolve around a doomed romance quite in the same way as Ghost of the Mirror (1974) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) did. Deng Chao and Betty Sun Li singing the theme song certainly helps, but the score is no match for the work from Romeo Diaz and James Wong in Hark’s 1987 HK classic. Zheng Shuang (郑爽), Betty Sun Li (孙俪, Lyric Lan Ying-Ying (蓝盈莹), Monica Mok Siu-Kei (莫小棋), and Charlotte Xia Yi-Yao (夏一瑶) are as beautiful as Sino girls tend to be but they are no match for Joey Wong Cho-Yin (王祖賢), circa 1985-87; Moon Lee Choi-Fung (李賽鳳), circa 1985; or Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching (邱淑貞), circa 1992.

The most recognizable names of the cast are Betty Sun Li, Lyric Lan Ying-Ying and Collin Chou Siu-Lung. Sun Li was in was in Ronny Yu’s Fearless (2006) and Lan Ying-Ying was in Painted Skin (2008). Li and Lan Ying-Ying were together in the critically acclaimed historical drama Empresses in the Palace (2011-2015) where Li received top billing. Whereas Empresses in the Palace (2011-2015) allowed Li to showcase a variety of (often very profound) emotions here her role is rather limited. Collin Chou Siu-Lung is a decorated veteran of Hong Kong and Mainland China cinema. His earliest appearance of note was in Encounter of the Spooky Kind II (1990) but he’s known to Western audiences as Seraph from The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) as well as Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden in the entertaining DOA: Dead or Alive (2006). Next to there are, among many others, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Special ID (2013), Angel Warriors (2013), and Ameera (2014). Ada Liu Yan later turned up in The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) and Bao Bei-Er years later starred in Yes, I Do! (2020) or the amiable Mainland China direct remake of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008). That Mural looks quite beautiful is to be taken quite literally as apparently most of the main cast were chosen from the modeling pool and they are helped tremendously by the costuming department. It’s not without a sense of irony that the lead faeries/maidens are named all after flowers and that the many unnamed fairy/maiden extras are portrayed by some of the prettiest Sino models in what are nothing but the most debasing (and inconsequential) of flower vase roles.

Gordon Chan Ka-Seung and Danny Go Lam-Paau are perfectly adequate action directors but between the two there isn’t a scintilla of feeling for romance or even the nuance that it requires to work. No amount of digital composited green/blue screen backdrops can replicate what the old masters did on location and soundstages. As a result Mural is at no point able to harness the same magical and near-fairytale qualities you’d expect of a production like this. Despite being custodian to one of the sweetest on-screen romances and dripping with saccharine sentimentality there was definitely potential for Mural to have been the next great Sino epic. The problem is the writing. Mural could have been one of the great romances had it been more tightly scripted. Alas that was not the case. The entire thing comes off as a handy, two-hour manual for socially stunted Chinese netizens unsure of how to interact with the fairer sex and, likewise, for them what kind of different men there are in the world. The dialogue lays it on thick so that the message is crystal clear. Only Husband Killers (女士复仇) (2017) would be even more blatant and obvious about it. While Mural is ostensibly beautifully lensed and probably better acted than it has any right to, never did a spectacle this expensive feel so insincere and hollow. No amount of beautiful women can save a production from an overkill of bad visual effects and aimless, horribly confused writing. Mural arrived a full six years after the Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999-2005) and effortlessly manages to look worse. Pu Songling deserved better. This is not it.

Plot: backpacking tourists encounter mercenaries in the jungles of Thailand.

There’s something to be said about the tenets and profound effects of globalization when a contemporary Mainland Chinese jungle action-adventure in the 2010s plays out by the exact same beats and character ur-archetypes as the Thai jungle actioners of Chalong Pakdeevijit in the 90s, the late 80s Italian jungle adventures of the 80s, and Filipino exploitation of the 70s. Angel Warriors (or 鐵血嬌娃 back at home) is conclusive proof that regardless of the decade and/or the geographic location it was made in certain cinematic tropes and conventions remain universal and unchanging. While it never plunges to the depths of Extra Service (2017) its dour reputation is entirely and richly deserved and not without reason. No amount of hardbodied Sino babes will be able to save a feature with this much of a trainwreck of a script. Mainland China usually is better at military action than this. Angel Warriors will make you wish it was directed by Lu Yun-Fei. Sadly, he was not in the director’s chair for this one.

It truly makes no difference whether this was produced in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Manila. The project was originally conceived in 2011 as Five-Star General - an alleged mix of Tomb Raider (2001) and the military jingoism of Avatar (2009) that pitted a group of female mercenaries or Amazon warriors against an enemy faction in the Thai jungles - and later the more Charlie’s Angels (2000) informed The Five.As a Thai co-production the Royal Thai Air Force was kind enough to supply helicopters. At some point the military aspect was toned down and the title was changed to Angel Warriors. Whether the screenplay by Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu was altered to accomodate these changes remains unclear. While Angel Warriors pushes an admirable environmental – and animal welfare agenda the screenplay is unbelievably slavish to convention, needlessly convoluted through non-functional flashbacks and rife with bad one-liners and even worse phonetic English. That it was directed by Fu Hua-Yang from the comedy hit Kung Fu Hip Hop (2008) probably didn’t help either.

Five backpacking tourist girls from Mainland China - Bai Xue (Yu Nan), CEO of a big company, passionate motorcyclist and leader of the pack; Yanyan (Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan), a professional dancer and practitioner of martial arts; Ah Ta (Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, as Mavis Pan), an wildlife protectionist; Dingdang (Wang Qiu-Zi), cousin of Bai Xue and internet entrepreneur in outdoor and extreme sports clothing and Tongtong (Wu Jing-Yi), archeologist, polyglot and the resident geek – embark on a trek through the Kana jungle in Thailand in search of the famed Tiger Tribe that has lived undisturbed and in isolation for hundreds of years. As girls are wont to do in they immediately head to the beach and break out their tiny bikinis. It is here that they meet local Dennis (Andy On Chi-Kit) and reformed mercenary Wang Laoying (Collin Chou Siu-Lung as Ngai Sing), a brother-in-arms and friend of Bai Xue’s late younger brother Bai Yun, and occupy themselves with swimming, diving and sailing. Along the way they pick up native guide and noble savage Sen (Xing Yu), betrothed of the princess of the Tiger Tribe. That night the girls go out clubbing and drinking in Pattaya beach and the obligatory bar brawl breaks out. Dennis introduces himself as a National Geographic documentary maker and soon the expedition is headed for Kana.

As the expedition heads deeper and deeper into the jungle the girls notice that the armed militia escorting Dennis is not what it seems. The expedition and the para-military units run into the Tiger Tribe and a fierce fight breaks loose. The natives are able to ward off the Chinese intruders but the girls are captured and imprisoned. The Tiger Tribe warrior princess Ha Er (Wang Danyi Li) and chieftain Aliao (Shi Fanxi, as Lawrence Shi) decree that the girls will be sacrificed to their god. Tongtong deduces what language the tribe speaks and is able to negiotiate the girls’ release. Dennis is revealed to be working with his Triad boss stepfather (Fu Hua-Yang) who are after the precious stones and other natural resources that the Kana jungle houses. The Triad boss sends Black Dragon (Kohata Ryu) and a female assassin (Renata Tan Li-Na) to neutralize both the backpacking girls as well as the native Tiger Tribe. By this point the girls have been accepted by the tribe and are being inducted into their ranks. Will the girls be strong enough to defeat the mercenaries that threaten the lush Kana jungle?

The main cast looks like they were ordered straight out of a Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated Swimsuit catalog. Why Yu Nan, Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Wang Danyi Li ever agreed to be part of this production is anybody’s guess. Someone must have desperately needed the paycheck or wanted a cheap vacation in Thailand. Multiple award-winning and arthouse queen Yu Nan is the obvious draw here and Western viewers might recognize her from the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) and as Maggie from The Expendables 2 (2012). The other big name is Hong Kong and Mainland China veteran Collin Chou Siu-Lung. His earliest appearance of note was in Encounter of the Spooky Kind II (1990) but he’s known to Western audiences as Seraph from The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) as well as Ryu Hayabusa from the entertaining DOA: Dead or Alive (2006). Next to that his credits include, among many others, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Mural (2011), and Special ID (2013). Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang was in the Sino What Women Want (2011) as well as Jing Wong's Treasure Inn (2011) and not much else. Like Wang Qiu-Zi she too rose to prominence as a model. Wang Danyi Li was unfortunate enough to be in the universally reviled 2011 remake of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) only to end up here. Renata Tan Li-Na would redeem herself with the Chrissie Chau Sau-Na wuxia The Extreme Fox (2013). She would become popular as a singer/dancer just like Wu Jing-Yi. Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (a year away from adopting her Patricia Hu alias) would go on to become the focus in the breast-centric action romp Ameera (2014). Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Andy On Chi-Kit were in better movies before and after this and they bring some semblance of respectability to this brainless waste of talent.

Where Angel Warriors falters most disastrously is in its screenplay. This is the absolute last place to look at improving the already deeply troubled Sino-Thai relations. Like its Italian forebears of the 1970s and 80s Angel Warriors is rife with imperialist - and genetic xenophobia depicting Thai people as uncultured, jungle-dwelling savages in need to saving by the enlightened white-skinned Chinese. The pre-title opening narration from Xing Yu is in Engrish and thus insulting to not only the Thai but to the English as well. The screenplay briefly toys with the idea of spirit animals and totems, but nothing is really made of it. For a bit it pushes an eco-friendly and animal welfare narrative, but both ideas are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced. Since this an ensemble cast with a few models, dancers and assorted Sino beauty queens the first thing the girls do is break out the bikinis, splash and swim in the nearest lake and before the expedition the girls party in revealing evening dresses. Mainland China might be demure and chaste but they never not took the time to extensively ogle a beautiful girl. It’s difficult to estimate whether writers Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu are just terrible at what they do or whether they were handed the wrong project. Regardless, Angel Warriors is nothing short of a modern day Green Inferno (1988) or a spiritual Sino precursor to the Filipino zombie ensemble comedy iZla (2021). On a lighter note, if you want to make a drinking game out of every time “extreme outdoor backpackers” is mentioned, you’ll be hospitalized within a good 30 minutes.

In theory the affordability of CGI should be a boon to Chinese exploitation cinema but h!story has proven it be more of a bane instead. In what seems like a regional trend it’s the rampant CGI that completely kills much of the production. There’s a time and place for CGI but in Angel Warriors it’s used indiscriminately and disproportionately especially in places where practical special effects would have sufficed. A combination of stock footage, animatronics and practical effects could’ve rendered the tiger scenes. The action scenes are as bullet-ridden and explosive as any contemporary American production. The fight choreography by Ma Yuk-Sing is up to the required standard, although high-flying wire-fu, martial arts acrobacy and interesting fighting routines weren’t in the books here. Obviously there was some budget to go around with Angel Warriors, but apparently the majority of funds was spent in the wrong place. Angel Warriors should’ve opted for the cost-efficient route and used CGI only sparingly. Somewhere along the way somebody lost the plot and the production obviously suffered direly from it. Angel Warriors is definitely not alone in its over-reliance on and over-usage of CGI, it’s a trend in Asian cinema of late. Hopefully the savage critical response will lead to a more old-fashioned special effects usage. Whenever the screen isn’t blinking director Fu Hua-Yang will remind us that all the girls are really pretty.

One of the remnants of this being an Charlie’s Angels (2000) derivative the five girls all wear sexy outfits corresponding with their main interest or defining character trait. Only Bai Xue and Tongtong wear anything remotely semi-practical. Yanyan, Ah Ta and Dingdang all wear some Tomb Raider imitation outfit and midriff baring tops lest we forget that they are played by Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang and Wang Qiu-Zi. Not that any no extreme outdoor backpacker would ever wear what the Angel Warriors are seen in here. Suspension of belief is one thing but Angel Warriors goes completely overboard in reminding everybody how attractive the main cast is. Only Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (who apparently had the greatest potential of becoming a star of her own) was able to move on from Angel Warriors although the following year’s Ameera (2014) all but killed her career. It would be interesting to see Yu Nan, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi, and Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (either seperately or together) in a full-blown Girls With Guns - or period costume wuxia production. It’s not so much that these women can’t act but that they are victims of a poor screenplay. There’s always hope that either Jing Wong or Tsui Hark will pick up them in the future.