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.