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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.

In 2004-2006 Saskatchewan power metal unit Into Eternity was a force to be reckoned with. They were on Century Media Records, on every major touring package in North America and pretty much on top of the world as it was. “The Incurable Tragedy”, overt populist metalcore disposition notwithstanding, saw the Canucks experiencing an even greater wave of popularity and visibility. Then… nothing happened. In the decade that followed Into Eternity, like so many bands of yesteryear, fell into disrepair as they lost members as well as their long-time recording contract with Century Media Records. Popular tastes and the metal scene as a whole moved on to the next fad as they are wont to, inexplicably making Swedish occult retro-rock band Ghost and J-pop sensation Baby Metal (hardly the best the country has to offer) the most popular (not to mention lucrative) items of recent memory. Then “The Sirens” was released to the sound of crickets on the M-Theory Audio label in October 2018. Twelve years removed from their last good album and a decade after “The Incurable Tragedy” the question doesn’t lie so much in Into Eternity’s innate ability as a band but whether or not the metal scene at large has moved on during their unusually long absence.

From days of “The Incurable Tragedy” and “The Scattering Of Ashes” only founding member Tim Roth (lead guitar, vocals) and Troy Bleich (bass guitar, vocals) remain. Justin Bender (guitars) has moved over to the production seat and replacing him is Matt Cuthbertson. Steve Bolognese went on to substitute original drummer Jim Austin, but for “The Sirens” Bolognese relinquished his position to Bryan Newbury. Finally, and probably most important of all personnel changes this band has seen to date, Amanda Kiernan was given the daunting task of replacing the man of a thousand voices Stu Block. “The Sirens” was a long time coming and delayed for at least two years. ‘Sandstorm’ and ‘Fukushima’ were released as singles in 2011 and 2012, respectively, when Block was still part of the band. At one point “The Sirens” was scheduled for release on much smaller Italian label imprint Kolony Records but apparently that agreement collapsed somewhere in the interim. A new contract was brokered with the equally low-profile M-Theory Audio and now, twelve years after their last offering, Into Eternity is back, supposedly one assumes, in full force.

That Into Eternity has chosen to keep Amanda Kiernan permanently in the position that she was initially hired to temporarily fill shouldn’t surprise anyone. Canada has a history with female-fronted traditional metal going as far to the eighties with the likes of Messiah Force and since 2013 there has been something of a resurgence of female-fronted underground metal in the Great White North. Those hoping that Tim Roth would hire that other Amanda (Amanda Marie Gosse from Category VI) will be sorely disappointed. Whereas Gosse has the actual high register and falsetto Kiernan is of a grittier persuasion and far closer to Debbie Levine from Lady Beast in comparison. At least there’s sense in hiring Kiernan as female-fronted metal, especially the traditional metal kind, has proven commercially successful and incredibly popular in places like Scandinavia, Germany, Asia (especially Japan) and North America. Now that Stu Block has moved on to the greener pastures of Tampa, Florida power/thrashers Iced Earth “The Sirens” conclusively proves that a decade-plus absence hasn’t dulled Into Eternity in the slightest. In fact it very much sounds like a band with something to prove.

A strange duality is what defines “The Sirens” for the most part. The five new cuts are probably some of the most technical, melodic material Roth has penned to date. ‘Sirens’, ‘Fringes of Psychosis’, ‘This Frozen Hell’, ‘Nowhere Near’, and ‘Devoured By Sarcopenia’ all clock around (and upwards of) 7 minutes. ‘Sirens’ even opens with an extended piano - and orchestral piece. The two preview singles that preceded “The Sirens” lean more towards their 2006-2008 era and not nearly contain the amount of proverbial fireworks and bravado that their new material does. The inclusion of ‘Sandstorm’ and ‘Fukushima’ is far more damning especially in light of both having been around for many years at this point. It’s understandable that Roth decided to record them with Kiernan at the helm, but that doesn’t change the fact that that space could have been put to better use for another new song. ‘Sandstorm’ and closing track ‘The Scattering Of Ashes’ are the most conventional in length and the latter sort of has the feel of a refurbished b-side of the accompanying 2006 album. “The Sirens” tackles a wide variety of subjects, both fictional and real. ‘Sirens’ is about the singing creatures of Greek mythology. ‘Fringes Of Psychosis’ and ‘Nowhere Near’ are about mental deterioriation and depression. ‘This Frozen Hell’ is a cut decrying the ungentle Canadian winter very much in tradition of Cryptopsy’s ‘…And Then It Passes.’ ‘Sandstorm’ chronicles Operation Neptune Spear and the capture and killing of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. ‘Fukushima’ is, should the name not be enough of an indicator, about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Roth’s loyalty to Touchwood Studios in Regina is admirable and “The Sirens” probably sounds far better than it has any right to considering there wasn't a major label behind the funding. It has what is probably the gnarliest production work Into Eternity has yet seen, especially compared to the Century Media Records releases of yore. Bryan Newbury’s energetic and versatile drumming in particular sounds probably worse than Nicholas Barker on Dimmu Borgir’s “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia”. It would behoof Into Eternity to consider recording drums at a different facility such as The Grid Productions in Québec with Christian Donaldson or at Wild Studio in Saint-Zénon with Pierre Rémillard. "The Sirens" is rough around the edges and it absolutely takes no prisoners, to say the very least. The Mattias Norén artwork is line with Into Eternity’s prior releases and very much cements that Roth and his cohorts never left the 2002-2008 sphere. “The Sirens” lacks some of the overall polish and gloss that its Century Media releases had in abundance. It very much is the album that directly should have followed 2008’s semi-conceptual “The Incurable Tragedy”. A decade has passed since that release and Into Eternity is pretty much in the same place they were in 2006-2008. At least they are consistent.

Ultimately “The Sirens” is very much a victim of its prolonged gestation period. Had this been released in 2012 its impact would have been considerably greater. There’s only so many people Into Eternity can reach now that they no longer have the clout of the Century Media Records promotion department behind them. It speaks volumes about the sorry state of the industry when an established band like Into Eternity, who has plenty of experience in the studio as on the road, has trouble securing a long-term recording contract. How come Nuclear Blast, Spinefarm, AFM, Massacre, Season Of Mist, or Napalm Records weren’t involved in a fierce bidding war to sign these dyed-in-the-wool Canucks? For the longest time it looked as if Into Eternity’s hiatus was going to be permanent. Thankfully “The Sirens” proves otherwise and obviously Tim Roth has many songs still in the tank. Few bands can manage to bounce back from an extended hiatus so strong and convincing as Into Eternity does here. Hopefully it won’t be another decade or so before they come around to releasing a follow-up to this kinda, sorta “comeback” album.