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Plot: will Liang find her true self again with all the obligations of adulthood?

Suddenly Seventeen (28岁未成年) is that other movie that Mainland China actress Ni Ni starred in in 2016. On the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from the French co-production Enter the Warrior’s Gate (2016) Ni Ni shines in Suddenly Seventeen as never before. Suddenly Seventeen was the directorial debut of Zhang Mo, daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yi-Mou and a romantic comedy that can easily compete with anything coming out of Hollywood. That is if the average American could be bothered to read subtitles or watch a foreign film in the first place. It hits all the right notes and Ni Ni can show why she’s probaby the best actress of her generation while wearing a lot of the latest fashion. It mercilessly tugs at the heartstrings and is magically optimistic before anything else. It might be formulaic to a fault, but everything in Suddenly Seventeen falls in place beautifully. If this was Japanese they’d probably call it kawaii or fuwa fuwa but Sudden Seventeen comes to us from Mainland China. It’s not quite Amélie (2001) but it comes close. Hardly the worst of comparisons.

Zhang Yi-Mou is the kind of director that isn’t very well known in the western hemisphere. Gong Li acted very much as his muse as she appeared in his Red Sorghum (1987), Operation Cougar (1989), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiuju (1992), Lifetimes (1994), Shanghai Triad (1995), and Coming Home (2014). Inevitably Yi-Mou’s most popularly known titles in the Anglo-Saxon world are the human interest drama Not One Less (1999) and his colorful big budget Hong Kong fantasy wuxia spectacles Hero (2002), and House Of Flying Daggers (2004) with Jet Li and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) with Chow Yun-Fat. Zhang Mo worked as an editor on her father’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009) and Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010) before moving up to assistant directing on his The Flowers of War (2011) with Ni Ni and Christian Bale. Suddenly Seventeen is entirely her own as she directed, edited, and co-wrote her debut feature. What better way for a daughter to step out of the shadow of her famous father than with her own rom-com?

On the morning of their tenth anniversary Liang Xia (Ni Ni) is convinced that her fiancé Mao Liang (Wallace Huo Chien-Hua) is going to propose to her. After 5 years of dating and 5 years of living together Liang has given up on her dream of becoming a famous painter. When he doesn’t and the diamond ring turns out to a business present for the wife of Mr. Gao (Pan Bin-Long), Mao’s client at his design company, Liang spirals into binge eating and depression. Impulsively she buys a box of Forever Lasting Youth and Happiness Magic Chocolate after seeing a TV commercial. Her BFF Bai Xiao-Ning or Four Eyes (Ma Su) encourages Liang to force Mao into proposing to her in public, something which she does at the wedding of their mutual friend Xiao Yu (Liu Bing). The plan backfires and Mao breaks up with Liang. Certain that she’s at fault for the failure she tries the Magic Chocolate and transforms back into her wide-eyed, flirty, rebellious younger self (or for 5 hours at least). Suddenly Seventeen again Liang stirs not only the interest of Mao but also that of the much younger Yan Yan (Darren Wang Ta-Lu). Now that she rekindled her passion for art and life again – will Liang be able unite her own interests with the needs of Mao and those of her boundlessly optimistic younger self?

Ni Ni must without a single doubt be the most talented and beautiful Asian actress since Joey Wong Yo-Chin and Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching. Since debuting in The Flowers of War (2011) from Zhang Mo’s father in a few years she has become one of the most sought-after Chinese actresses together with Fan Bingbing. Before landing in Tsui Hark’s beautiful disaster The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) she starred in the 2015 Chinese remake of Bride Wars (2009) and Luc Besson’s comically inane period costume action-adventure wuxia Enter the Warrior’s Gate (2016). As steely-eyed and constipated she was in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) so much more lovable and adorable she’s in Suddenly Seventeen. In tradition of every great actress that ever played a dual role Ni Ni is allowed to indulge with different hairstyles and fashion. In a nice touch to indicate the change whenever Liang turns into her 17-year old self colors become highly saturated and when she returns to her old self low saturation sets in. It’s a cost-effective visual effect that has a profound effect on the viewer and helps visualize Liang’s differing state of mind on which demographic she currently inhabits.

Suddenly Seventeen is every bit as corny and every bit as formulaic as you’d expect of a big Mainland China production. It’s a romantic comedy that’s in part a gender-swapped The Family Man (2000) with a healthy dose of Big (1988) and a bit of 13 Going On 30 (2004) in reverse to even things out. A great deal of the comedy is modeled after every bodyswap time-travel movie since Freaky Friday (1976), Like Father Like Son (1987), and Vice Versa (1988) – except that Ni Ni trades places with her younger self in the present. Liang comes to a better understanding about herself and rediscovers her passions by letting her younger self run amok. As she tries to clean up the messes 17-year old Liang leaves behind while trying to hide her from those immediately surrounding her. She comes to the conclusion that having her younger self at her disposal might actually benefit her life, which was in an impasse ever since she started dating Mao, and allow her to spread her wings, both personally as well as professionally. It’s the old fish out of water convention that continues to be remarkably effective when used properly. Ni Ni’s transformation from sharply-dressed young woman (in 2016 she was 28 after all) to a denim-wearing, wild haired 17-year old party girl that is every bit as enjoyable as Jennifer Garner waking up in her thirty-year-old body in 13 Going On 30 (2004) and discovering that, yes, she has breasts.

A point of contention could be that Suddenly Seventeen is as hyper-polished and thus a bit bland. It’s exactly the sort of product you’d expect from a known dynasty of filmmakers. The level of craft and attention to detail coupled with the cinematography from Jeffrey Chu will inevitably lead to it being labeled as soulless. There’s a time and place for by-the-numbers rom coms like Suddenly Seventeen. As formulaic and predictable as they tend to be the relentless optimism from Suddenly Seventeen is endearing and infectious, to say the least. Zhang Mo couldn’t have left a more favorable impression than she did here. In the last decade or so Mainland China has been in a habit of remaking Japanese, and American properties for the domestic market and Suddenly Seventeen is one such features. It piqued our interest enough to be curious what Zhang Mo could do in the period costume wuxia (whether it’s fantasy or historical) or martial arts/action genres if she was coupled with somebody like like Yuen Wo-Ping or Tsui Hark. Even if Mo just makes a career out of dramas and romances she can be counted upon to deliver quality work. There’s no shortage of both on the Chinese domestic market making it a treacherous landscape to explore. Suddenly Seventeen doesn’t have to worry about the restrictions that its lesser funded cousins have, and that’s part of its appeal. Suddenly Seventeen is the sort of movie you’d expect to be remade in Bollywood or South Korea. We’re surprised that hasn’t happened yet.

Plot: underground warrior sect vows to stop invasion of extraterrestrial demons.

The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the long awaited and much overdue collaboration between director/action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and producer/writer/director Tsui Hark. Yuen Wo-Ping and Tsui Hark are veritable Hong Kong legends and this Mainland China feature sees both men combining their strengths to create the ultimate fantasy wuxia event movie. Allegedly a remake of Yuen Wo-Ping’s own The Miracle Fighters (1982) The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the first chapter in a grand two-part saga chronicling an epic confrontation between good and evil on the tellurian and the celestial plains. Apparently this was very much supposed to be a Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) for this generation. Unfortunately The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia falls disappointingly, depressingly short of the mark and instead ends up somewhere along the lines of Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994) and Mural (2011).

As producer Hark graced the world with everything from Peking Opera Blues (1986), the A Better Tomorrow (1986-1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991-1997) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987-1991) franchises, as well as Dragon Inn (1992), and Green Snake (1993). In capacity as director Yuen Wo-Ping worked with some of the finest martial artists, among them Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh with a resumé including Drunken Master (1978), Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Iron Monkey (1993), Fire Dragon (1994), and Wing Chun (1994). As an action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping is known in the West for his work on Fist of Legend (1994), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and its amiable sequel Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia sees Tsui Hark writing and producing with Yuen Wo-Ping directing. Nominated in three categories (Best Action Film, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects) at the 12th Asian Film Awards and an additional two (Best Action Choreography, and Best Visual Effects) at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is shockingly average and falls well short of both Hong Kong veterans' individual and collective legacy.

action choreographer/director Yuen Wo-Ping (left) and producer/writer Tsui Hark (right)

No less than 19 production companies and three visual effects firms were involved in the creation of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia. Interestingly, at least for those who pay attention to such things, there was no involvement from the Film Bureau who specialize in these kind of endeavours but on a much smaller scale. Probably because Hark’s screenplay somewhat condemns the corruption of ancient Chinese bureaucracy. Not only does The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia frequently ends up looking like a video game, it’s even structured like one as the merry band of spiritual warriors, each with their own superpower, embark on a perilous six chapter journey to save the world from certain doom at the hand of alien invaders. It comes replete with character power-ups, object fetching quests and end of level boss fights. It’s bad enough when Mural (2011), Angel Warriors (2013), and Ghost Story: Bride with the Painted Skin (2016) end up with better visual effects. At this rate even Bollywood has superior special effects with box office hits as Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). You know a production is in trouble when Ada Liu Yan’s breasts attract far more attention than the grand heroic tale it’s spinning.

In ancient China during the Northern Song Dynasty agile fighter Dao Yichang (Aarif Rahman) travels to the capital of Kaifeng hoping to become the constable. Sent on a mission to intercept non-existing wrong-doers Dao quite accidently happens upon a plot much larger than himself. Chasing a strange-looking villager all through the city and into the local brothel where his goldfish turns into an oversized, three-eyed demon causing pandemonium and chagrin to prostitute Mermaid (Ada Liu Yan). The incident attracts the attention of the secretive Wuyinmen warrior clan. They have long held the prophecy that such an event would herald the coming of their destined leader. The seven Wuyinmen members have inherited the magical skills of Qimen and the Dunjia orb will allow them to repel the alien invasion. Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni) forges an alliance with Dao, which prompts Big Brother (Wu Bai) to seek out the Destroyer Of Worlds device. Meanwhile Wuyinmen doctor and strategist Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) happens upon waifish ingénue Circle (Zhou Dong-Yu), who's not only an amnesiac but bears the wrist markings of the prophesied Wuyinmen messiah, in a catacomb. That the fragile and slender stray also is a demonic shape-shifting monstrosity is something only Tsui Hark could come up with. With time rapidly ticking away Iron Butterfly and her brothers engage in a desperate effort to safe the world from a ferocious alien force that threatens to destroy it.

If nothing of the above comes across as your typical Tsui Hark fantastical adventure then you’re absolutely right. An everyman chases what turns out to be an alien lifeform and happens upon an impending invasion while being initiated into a top-secret organization (that civilians are blissfully unaware of even exists) and they need a certain object of great importance and magnificent power to stop said invasion from destroying all life on Earth? The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, should there really be any doubt it is, the Chinese equivalent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black (1997). Aarif Rahman does his best Will Smith impression, Ni Ni is Tommy Lee Jones complete with snark and cynicism, and Da Peng is Rip Torn. At various points Ada Liu Yan and Zhou Dong-Yu stand in for Linda Fiorentino. It’s depressing to see Hark imitating Hollywood, especially in light of how he once was an innovator. Only the messiah prophecy is somewhat redolent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) but that’s the extent to which Hark deviates from the Men In Black (1997) model. For Chinese audiences the story might have been something else with its daring mix of comedy, Chinese folklore, science fiction and a decidedly Western idea of a plot. For Western audiences The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia riffs on Men In Black (1997) just a bit too close for comfort. It has neither the charm nor the goofy comedy from the Barry Sonnenfeld original. Slapstick humor has long been a boon to the work of Tsui Hark, but here it’s definitely more of a bane.

At least the story is reminiscent of both Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) but there’s where the good news ends. The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is frustratingly episodic and builds towards a climax that never really comes. It’s so busy setting up the inevitable sequel that it frequently forgets that it’s supposed to tell its own story for that sequel to make any sense. Somewhere in the early 2000s Mainland China features started to resemble 2 hour trailers more than actual movies and The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is no different. Tsui Hark’s masterful eye for composition and use of color is painfully absent and the acrobatic action choreography from Yuen Cheung-yan and Yuen Shun-yi isn’t enough to save The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia from prematurely collapsing in on itself. As a greatest hits of sorts there are clumsy constables and well-meaning Confucian scholars, brave sword(wo)men, gravity-defying physics and plenty of beautiful women, prostitutes and otherwise, who are either chaste or promiscuous and always prefer a few slaps across the face as a form of foreplay. Most of the men are bumbling idiots constantly dangling for threesomes with girls who might, or might not, be monsters. Granted everything’s beautifully photograped by Choi Sung-Fai but it never congeals into the Chinese The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) that it probably was meant to be.

Perhaps the worst of all is that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia never becomes more than a sum of its parts. At its best it harnesses the mad kinetic energy of We’re Going to Eat You (1980) but those moments are far and few. 34 years after Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) you’d imagine Tsui Hark having the fantasy wuxia down to a science. If The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was meant to rejuvenate and redefine the fantasy period costume genre then it’s perhaps time to look to at the small screen where series as Ice Fantasy (2016) and Secret Healer (2016) do the same thing to much greater effect on a comperatively smaller budget. Ni Ni is overflowing with talent even though the shadow of Joey Wong, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung looms large over her. Xie Miao was in God Of Gamblers Return (1994) and it’s always good seeing him in another high-profile production. Ada Liu Yan was in Painted Skin (2008) and Mural (2011) and her star is definitely on the rise. Yan is well underway eclipsing Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi and Yang Ke in terms of bankability. Arguably Tsui Hark has seen better days and his new obsession with digital effects might very well spell the end of practical effects in his movies from here on out. Yuen Wo-Ping on the other hand helms The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia with all the finesse and professionalism you’d expect from an esteemed veteran of his caliber.

Critical – and fan reception was mixed to negative and for once they were spot on. It’s sad to see Tsui Hark, the Steven Spielberg from Asia, undertake such an ambitious project and have it fail so unbelievably spectacularly due to a hamfisted screenplay and some of the most unconvincing digital - and visual effects this side of a bad PlayStation 3 game. That the man who innovated Asian cinema time and again (by taking old folklore stories and reinventing them as action-filled special effects extravaganzas) in the past three decades now finds himself a follower instead of a leader of contemporary cinematic trends is depressing enough. If, and when, the proposed second chapter of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia does arrive we can only hope that Tsui Hark will be able to properly amaze us with his enchanting vistas of mythical figures engaged in epic battle once again. There’s no shortage of the fantastical element in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, if only the human element was half as interesting as it ought to be. There is a time and place to admire Ada Liu Yan, but we have an inkling suspicion that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was not supposed to be it.