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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.

Plot: fallen Bishop Niklas, the patron of children, returns as the ravenous undead

Sint is a lot of things. It was the event horror movie of 2010. It generated some controversy (manufactured or otherwise) due to its choice of subject matter and it pulled writer/producer/director Dick Maas firmly into the limelight. Sint is very much a nostalgic trip to the far-flung 1980s. It’s certainly bloody enough and to see a beloved folkloric figure as the Sint reimagined as one of the murderous undead is at least interesting from a cultural perspective for anyone living in Belgium or the Netherlands. Is it Maas’ great new classic? Not exactly. Sint is a tad too lukewarm and underwritten for that and the striking visuals alone cannot redeem so much of where the writing falters. Certainly Maas has an eye for beautiful women and the man who gave the world Tatjana Šimić does not fail on that front. On all other fronts Sint is an enjoyable enough horror romp that could’ve been far more than what it ended up being. At the very least it scores points for originality, though.

Sinterklaas is a figure unknown to much of the English-speaking world. The folkloric figure of Sinterklaas, or simply Sint, is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), who had a reputation of being a generous benefactor to the poor and the forgotten, of gift-giving to children of all ages and performing the occassional miracle. Sinterklaas is typically depicted as a benevolent elderly, stately man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape, or chasuble, over a white bishop's alb and sometimes red stola, a red mitre and a ruby ring. Traditionally he comes brandishing a gold-coloured crosier and a long ceremonial shepherd's staff with a curled and ornately designed top. Sinterklaas is custodian to a big, red book in which is written whether each child had been well-behaved that year. Sinterklaas comes in the company of several Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), his trusty black helpers in colourful Moorish dresses with ruff collars and feathered caps. Black Pete carries around a bag full of candy, the contents of which are tossed to children awaiting the Sint's arrival on his steed Amerigo (or Bad Weather Today).

Traditions surrounding Sinterklaas differ in Belgium and the Netherlands. The gifts are given on St. Nicholas' Eve (5 December) in the Netherlands and on the feast of Sinterklaas on 6 December in Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern regions of France (French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois). The model of Saint-Nicholas later evolved into that of Santa Claus when Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan Island in the 17th century and brought their traditions with them. New Amsterdam later was rechristened New York on September 8, 1664 just before the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Understandably Sint is often mistaken for a Christmas-themed horror movie (the international English title Saint Nick doesn’t particularly help) in the Anglo-Saxon world due to cultural differences. Note how Sinterklaas and Santa Claus sound nearly identical phonetically. Suffice to say Santa Claus has spawned its own set of Christmas-themed horror movies with the likes of Black Christmas (1974), Don't Open Till Christmas (1984), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and Home Alone (1990).

On the eve of 5 December 1492 fallen bishop Niklas (Huub Stapel) and his cohorts enter a small Dutch peasant hamlet where the villagers instantly flee locking doors and windows. Once Niklas and his minions have taken refuge in their galleon in the harbor a small band of brave villagers brandishing pitchforks and torches incinerate Niklas and his entourage in an awesome inferno by throwing molotov cocktails into the stationary ship. With his dying breath and consumed by the flames the Sint curses the farming hamlet swearing that he’ll have his revenge. On the eve of 5 December 1968 a young farmboy by the name of Goert Hoekstra (Niels van den Berg) is witness to his family being bloodily murdered by an old man on a white horse who suspiciously looks like the patron of children everywhere, the Sint.

Sint then cuts to 5 December 2010 where in an unspecified Amsterdam high school dullard Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber, as Egbert-Jan Weeber) is the butt of a particularly cruel joke on part of his ex-girlfriend Sophie (Escha Tanihatu) during class festivities. As it turns out Frank is far from innocent as he had been seeing Lisa (Caro Lenssen) on the side for a while when he was still dating Sophie. With no immediate and exciting plans for St. Nicholas' Eve he and his friends take up a job of playing Sint for local needy children. Around the same time a now middle-aged Goert Hoekstra (Bert Luppes), a law enforcement officer prone to depression and especially stressed this time of year, is called into the office of the chief (Jaap Spijkers) after having handed in an extensive report on what he believes to be not a regular St. Nicholas' Eve. His chief finds his report, obviously the product of years of extensive research on the myth of the Sint, to be a wee bit extravagant. His chief orders him to take a month’s long vacation until the festivities blow over. Hoekstra, sufficiently pissed after being called a superstitious fool, storms out not much later.

That night something does happen. Frank and his buddies, experiencing trouble with their vehicle’s GPS, soon find themselves in the middle of nowhere. Frank is barely able to escape the clutches of the murderous undead when the Sint and his zombified Black Petes claim his friends as their victims. As the bodies start to pile up and emergency calls flood the station the chief calls in Van Dijk (Ben Ramakers) and orders him to track down Hoekstra and to deploy whatever force necessary to counter the sudden influx of violent crime and the apparent homicidal epidemic that has consumed much of the city. Hoekstra and Frank eventually do make their acquaintance and the elderly police officer, now having sustained mortal wounds in a skirmish with the undead, tells the youth how to defeat the Sint. With nowhere to go and no one turn to cowardly Frank is left alone to face off against the unholy Sint and his demonic Black Petes. In a vain effort to control the situation the police and the mayor (René van Asten) agree to martyr Hoekstra for the good cause by attributing the murders to him and his tenuous grasp on his sanity. In the hospital Frank, believing the nightmare to be finally over, is greeted by Lisa who has read all about his St. Nicholas' Eve heroics in the morning newspaper.

The man behind Sint is the prolific Dick Maas, a veritable institution in the Dutch cinematic landscape and a pillar in the Nederhorror scene. As a writer, producer and director Maas was responsible for Dutch horror sub-classics Amsterdamned (1988) and The Lift (1983) as well as the rowdy Flodder comedy franchise (1986-1995) (as well as the series derived from it) and the well-intended drama My Blue Heaven (1994). Maas helmed the concert video Live From the Twilight Zone (1984) from the Golden Earring, one of the country’s longest running classic rock bands. The Dutch horror scene spawned a few classics next to Maas’ The Lift (1983) and Amsterdamned (1988) with the slasher Intensive Care (1991) and the highly atmospheric The Johnsons (1995). The neighbouring Belgium, whose tradition in horror is even smaller, contributed Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Devil’s Nightmare (1971) and Rabid Grannies (1988). Is Sint Maas’ best work? That’s debatable. It’s a bit too underwritten for that – and for an 80s nostalgia trip it’s surprisingly prude. At least it uses practical effects more than the reviled CGI.

No Dutch production is complete without the usual Belgian talent and Sint has Barbara Sarafian and Lien Van de Kelder on lend from across the border. Since this is a Dick Maas production and he’s as much a philistine as Jing Wong or a certain Spanish director which shall not be named Sint has no shortage of beautiful women. In this case Caro Lenssen, Escha Tanihatu, and Madelief Blanken with Belgian belle Lien Van de Kelder in a cameo part. As much as Sint positions itself as a callback to 80s horror it’s completely free of any skin. Neither Caro Lenssen, Escha Tanihatu, Madelief Blanken, or Lien Van de Kelder will be taking their tops (or any other article of clothing) off – and that’s a waste of talent if there ever was one. Tanihatu is killed off prematurely despite her babysitting chores gave her ample opportunity to show skin. Blanken pretty much disappears after the introductory school segment, supposedly never to be seen again. Weeber, Lenssen, Tanihatu, and Blanken are the oldest high school students too. It’s something you’d expect of a Gloria Guida commedia sexy all’Italiana – but not here of all places.

Lien Van de Kelder, famous for her ample curvature and a well-regarded regular in Dutch police procedurals, has a miniscule cameo as nurse Merel but she’s offed mere moments after her character is introduced. At least her character was given the dignity of a name. Would it have hurt to at least have Lien changing clothes or stepping into a shower for a scene? In fact the entire hospital segment, brief as it is, proves that Intensive Care (1991) could’ve actually been good had it been produced, written and/or directed by Dick Maas. To say that Van de Kelder is underutilized is putting it very mildly. Lenssen does eventually take her top off but does so respectably with her back to the camera in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene at the very end. Dutch horror enthusiast Jan Doense cameos as a reporter. What’s the purpose of casting four beautiful women and not having them take their clothes off at least once? Lesser directors wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. Blood splatters, extremities are severed and one-liners are abound, but there isn’t a naked breast or derrière to be seen anywhere. For shame, mister Maas, for shame.

The writing could, and perhaps should, have been better. Sint is littered with one-note characters that seldom venture beyond their designated archetypes. There isn’t a single likeable character within sight. Frank is a dense, clumsy doofus but that doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. All three girls come across as superficial, egocentric ditzes with not the least bit interest in the world around them. The romance between Lisa and Frank is not only improbable but frequently unfathomable. By the time Goert Hoekstra is reintroduced as a middle-aged man he’s reduced to a babbling madman. His chief, Johan, doesn’t fare much better. Here’s a chief that has known about about the threat of St. Nicholas' Eve for about 4 decades, but chooses to sit on his hands. Hoekstra is brushed off as a superstitious fool and it isn’t until early in the third act that the chief comes around and actually takes Hoekstra’s report seriously, but by then the situation has escalated and it’s too late (mostly for reasons having to do with third act dramatic tension). Together with the mayor he decided to sweep the rampage under rug by blaming Goert Hoekstra, the one who warned him well enough in advance, for the carnage. It’s the kind of writing you’d expect of a novice, not of an experienced veteran as Maas.

Sint is a lot of things. It’s far bloodier than you’d reasonably expect it to be. It’s comedic in parts and completely straight in others. It has witty quips and one-liners but can get surprisingly oppressive when it sets its mind to it. It transforms a beloved figure of folklore into a ravening member of the undead. It’s partly a slasher and partly a zombie movie. It has four of the most beautiful Dutch and Belgian women and has them keeping their clothes on. Sint wants to be the horror movie for people who don’t know or like horror. There’s a strange duality to Sint that both helps and hinders it depending on the part. It has no ambitions beyond being a good popcorn flick and it delivers in spades. While there was an open ending in case it was successful enough, it thankfully never spawned a sequel.