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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 he turns into an oversized, three-eyed goldfish 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: Royal Hong Kong Police officer takes down gang of assassins

Madam City Hunter was the second of three directorial features by frequent Kar-Wai Wong assistant director Johnnie Kong. As expected it is as far removed from the work of Kar-Wai Wong as you’d imagine. The most direct forebear for Madam City Hunter is the Sammo Hung produced Yes, Madam! (1985) with Michelle Yeoh. Like its forebear Madam City Hunter mixes fast-paced martial arts action with humour that frequently misses the mark and a family plot worthy of a syndicated daytime soap opera. The humor is above average and better than most Jing Wong. It isn’t high art and it never aspires to be. Its sexual politics are confused, the plot is scattered and barely threadbare at best, but it manages to deliver exactly what it promises: Cynthia Khan kicking everybody's ass with her balletic martial arts.

The plot concerns tough, no-nonsense Royal Hong Kong Police officer Yang Ching (Yang Li-Tsing, as Cynthia Khan) taking down a vicious gang of assassins known as the Five Fingers. Framed for the murder of a group of teens Ching is pulled off the case but encouraged by the smitten Commissioner Kwong (Kwong Leung Wong, as Tommy Kwong-Leung Wong) to clandestinely continue the investigation while he orders protection in the form of bumbling, goofy private investigator Charlie Chang (Anthony Wong) and his hyperactive girlfriend Blackie (Sheila Chan). On the homefront Ching’s wealthy father (Fung Woo) has a new fiancée in Siu-Hung (Kara Hui, as Chare Wai Eng Hong). Ching suspects she has ulterior motives but has nothing to substantiate the claim. Will Ching be able to stop Five Fingers leader Thumb (Yau Gin-Gwok) and his reign of terror across the city?

For Cynthia Khan Madam City Hunter was hardly her first venture into action. Khan was born Yang Li-Tsing in Taiwan and was a practitioner of taekwondo and ballet dancing. In 1985 she won a national talent contest run by a Taiwanese television station. Two years later, in 1987, she signed a contract with Hong Kong production company D & B Films Co., Ltd. to replace their star Michelle Yeoh (then still Kahn) in the third installment of the In the Line Of Duty series (1985-1991), a sequel franchise that arose from the box office success of the martial arts actioner Yes, Madam! (1985). At the urging of her contractors Yang Li-Tsing was given an Anglicized alias, in this case a portmanteau of her two favorite Hong Kong martial arts inspirations and D & B favorites: Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Kahn (later Yeoh). Thus came to be Cynthia Kahn, a reliable second-tier performer who made up her lack of acting talent in sheer athleticism, acrobacy and elegance of movement. As Michelle Yeoh’s star rose with appearances in the Bond episode Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and the period wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Cynthia Khan was summarily (and unjustly) relegated to obscurity.

The remainder of the cast was a gathering of talent, old and new. Kara Hui was a Chinese actress that grew up in the shanty town of Tiu Keng Leng (or Rennie’s Mill as it is more popularly known) before being discovered by director Lau Kar-leung. Hui made a name for herself for her numerous kung fu roles in Shaw Bros productions all through the 1970s and 80s. In 1993 Anthony Wong was a rising star with appearances in Hong Kong actioners as Hard Boiled (1992), and The Heroic Trio (1993), as well as Cat. III productions as The Untold Story (1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996). Sheila Chan was Miss Photogenic and the first runner-up at the 1988 Miss Hong Kong Pageant. Chan earlier had played a character named Blackie in the actioner Lady Hunter: Prelude to Murder (1992), the directorial debut of Takashi Miike. Fung Woo was an elder statesmen of Hong Kong cinema. He was a known matinee idol in the 1950s and 1960s and famous for his frequent collaborations with Josephine Siao in 1960s musicals. He was nicknamed the “Dance King” for his legendary dancing skills.

As expected with low budget romps like this the writing is hit-and-miss. In the beginning it spents far too long on a subplot concerning one of the kids for whose murder Ching is framed for. Another subplot concerns the financial woes of private investigator Charlie Chan and his girlfriend Blackie. The dinner scene with Blackie constantly toasting and getting ever drunker in the process gets on the nerves quick. In fact Blackie’s entire character seems to be based around endless screaming and pseudo-funny skits. The connect-the-dots screenplay exists as a showcase for the fight choreography. Said choreography is pretty good considering on how small of a budget this was produced. Khan is elegant in all of her martial arts routines, and even Anthony Wong throws in a few select moves towards the end. Madam City Hunter works around its budgetary limitations with frequent martial arts routines and comedic overkill. Not all the humor hits the mark, but things could be far worse. Cynthia Khan’s filmography is littered with low-budget outings like this, and Madam City Hunter is among the better entries in a considerable body of work that wildly fluxuates in terms of quality.

The action choreography by Cheung-Yan Yuen sells Madam City Hunter even when the screenplay doesn’t. It starts with an extended shootout in a building holding a bunch of heavily-armed gangsters, Khan bursts in and makes short work of any assailants she encounters by relentlessly high-kicking, punching, or shooting the life out of them. Known for her no-nonsense cop roles Cynthia Khan here shows a more gentle, humane side to her character as Royal Hong Kong Police officer Yang Ching is fallible too – and Madam City Hunter has her partying, being lovesick, sad, and getting drunk. The one-on-one fights are fast-paced, hard-hitting and energetic to a fault. Khan takes as much damage as she metes out. The confrontation with the head goon takes her across his hideout, and sees her fighting him with bamboo sticks. When he tries to take off Khan continues her pursuit across rooftops. The entire sequence climaxes as Khan battles her katana-wielding opponent unarmed hanging suspended from a bamboo scaffolding and into an adjacent room where he is finally defeated and arrested. Khan’s graceful balletic moves, athleticism, and martial arts chops are what sells the scene.

Madam City Hunter is strangely enjoyable action nonsense that obviously capitalized on Jackie Chan’s City Hunter (1993) from Hong Kong cultural zeitgeist - and exploitation institution Jing Wong and Michelle Yeoh's Yes, Madam! (1985). It caters to the same audience from Khan’s In the Line Of Duty series even though the humor, often lowbrow and juvenile, frequently gravitates into The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) territory. The comedy takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Whether it’s Anthony Wong’s incessant mugging and bumbling in front of the camera, Sheila Chan’s infectious-cum-annoying hyperactivity, the prerequisite cross-dressing assassin, and a pre-Viagra herbal extract joke that is mistaken for poison (with the expected results). The middle section drags somewhat with its numerous romantic misadventures that could've come out of Bollywood production. Sheila Chan looks pretty cute in her little maid outfit. Cynthia Khan and Kara Hui regularly steam up the screen with their mini-skirts and the fight choreography by Cheung-Yan Yuen is frenetic, elegant and frequently impressive thanks to its sheer can-do attitude. Madam City Hunter is far better than it has any right to be, and low-budget HK action regularly doesn't always aspire to the standards that Madam City Hunter sets for itself. As far as Hong Kong action nonsense goes you could do far worse than Madam City Hunter.