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The Return Of the Shelia (2017)

Plot: Xi Li-Ya vows to wreak havoc on One-Eyed for killing her father.

The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) is the second part - more of a continuation rather than a true sequel - of Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (2016) from a year before. Since it came from the same eight-month shooting as the original there isn’t much, if any, difference between the two. Instead of having bigger set pieces, wilder chases, and more explosive action The Return Of the Shelia is… well, more of the same. It’s the second half of the story that should have been part of the first, but for some unfathomable reason never was. Mad Shelia (2016) didn’t end on a cliffhanger; it abruptly ended in the middle of the story and called it a day. Fu Xiao finally gets to do something in the movie bearing her name, and Lu Lei at long last manifested that he was not nearly the hack his early work might make him out as. All of which a long way of saying that The Return Of the Shelia is not only the epic conclusion to the not-so-epic Mad Shelia mini-saga, but probably Mainland China’s most enduring webmovie classic of the past several years.

The Far East has always had a rich and storied history in exploitation filmmaking. Once budgets in Hong Kong dwindled a cotton industry sprung up in Taiwan, and Malaysia. Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia themselves all had regional exploitation industries that spawned a veritable slew of classics across genres themselves. Mainland China, with its government-mandated censorship and the restrictive laws enforced by the Film Bureau, lagged behind for a long time for exactly those reasons. As far as we’re aware the wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) or webmovie is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that grew parallel with streaming services and their need for content. The 2010s heralded an exploitation resurgence of sorts as now movies were produced fast and cheap for streaming services and delivered straight to the customer without any middleman. With box office returns no longer a concern this meant that every niche imaginable could be catered to as long as the movies in question were beholden to the law. Where the West relies on DIY and underground filmmaking the East is, once again, ahead of the curve – pioneering a practice that hasn’t caught on in the West yet.

After escaping an all-out assault from roving gangs in the desert Mad Shelia (Fu Xiao), reformed bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan), and madly babbling vagrant Shadiang (Li Da) continue their journey to Oil City. Meanwhile, as the smoke clears and the chaos of the assault subsides, it dawns upon Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) and the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country that Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) and his Wild One gang have taken to chasing Mad Shelia for their own gain. The two parties decide that perhaps they’re better off working with instead of against each other. All three parties run into One-Eyed (Li Yan) and his armed forces. He suggests that all gangs put their vendettas and territorial disputes aside, and form an alliance in pursuit of their common goal: Mad Shelia. The Wild One gang takes the lead, and the newly forged union runs into an ambush. A clash follows and One-Eyed executes all of his former allies in cold blood. After an extended chase and the inevitable explosive confrontation that follows Mad Shelia, Bo En, and Shadiang emerge victorious. Once arrived in Oil City capital the Duchess (Na Duo) says that the title of Duke should rightly go to Bo En. He, however, passes the title onto virtuous Shadiang believing him to restore justice and order in the city. Shadiang meanwhile is happy he finally gets to enjoy the company of the Duchess, and the two dimwitted but comely court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) he so long pined after.

As this is just the second half of material shot during the same eight-month period that birthed Mad Shelia (2016) the same critiques apply. A production like this would have benefitted tremendously from live pyrotechnics and old school prosthetic/practical effects. There’s an almost Eurociné and Neil Breen quality to some of the shoot-outs, the wounds, and the props. You don’t truly appreciate the level of care and attention to detail that went into the weapon replicas that Peter Jackson manually produced for his horror comedy debut Bad Taste (1987) until you see what they use here. The rare prosthetic effect used for bodily carnage is uniformly and universally cheap, and thankfully the camera never dwells on them long enough. While the usage of digital effects is understandable from an economic point of view it still doesn’t change that most of them usually have an adverse effect instead. The few explosions that do occur would have been so much better with actual pyrotechnics, and the firefights feel stilted and miss the gravitas, the weight, and the impact they need to impress. Vehicular damage, smoke, fire, and just about everything that cost yuans is done digitally. The slow-motion chases are legendary by this point, and you know a movie is in trouble when Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) become the better options.

Not that Lu Lei hasn’t redeemed himself since the Mad Shelia days but it remains a sore point. This could have been so much bigger and better. Everything just looks one or two several paygrades below what it should’ve probably been. Fu Xiao does her best with what little writer Yu Huan-Huan gives her. The action direction from Lei Zhen-Dong is, well, non-existent – and it’s no surprise he has never worked again. Few hand-to-hand sequences occur, and when they do they possess no sense of weight or scale. The “welcome to my private warehouse” scene is a direct abridged re-creation of the corresponding scene in the Mexico segment from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The poster art is misleading in that it makes The Return Of the Shelia looks much larger than it actually is. Not that it’s the first time that an exploitation movie is guilty of that particular offense, the genre is littered with larger-than-life promises, misleading poster art, and deceiving promo trailers across several decades. The thing is that China normally does this kind of thing far better. The HK actioners that are Mad Shelia’s most logical precursors also often were cheap affairs, but they always had that something. Outside of the novelty factor Mad Shelia has very little going for it, except Fu Xiao. And it’s unfortunate that she has so little to do here. This is very much an instance of Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) and Nemesis 3: Time Lapse / Prey Harder (1996) all over again. Mad Shelia could’ve been something – but apparently that wasn’t in the cards.

And what did Lu Lei do after the excursion into Mongolia that was Mad Shelia? Well, he directed the Fox-Spirit trilogy. First, he did A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) or a budget re-enactment of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and followed it up with the two-part A Fox's Story (2019) mini-saga. While that was a counterfeit version of Tsui Hark’s big budget fantasy wuxia The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) it too was guilty of the same sins as Mad Shelia and its sequel. For hitherto undisclosed reasons A Fox's Story (2019) too was awkwardly cut into two chapters. And just like Mad Shelia (2016) they don’t make a lick of sense if you happen to see them out of order. A constant in Lu Lei’s recent endeavors is Fu Xiao, and his later works give her far more to work with. She’s far better in A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) and A Fox's Story (2019) than she’s here. While The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) has its own problems, A Fox's Story (2019) is an almost scene-per-scene re-enactment of the Tsui Hark production, and it’s admirable in the sense that somebody saw it fit to imitate it on such a minuscule budget. It’s the sign of the times possibly. There’s nothing that Mainland China can’t imitate on a fraction of the budget and with none of the talent. If Mad Shelia and The Return Of the Shelia are testament to anything, it’s that exploitation is alive and kicking in 21st century China. Here’s hoping we get a no-budget Disney Star Wars (2015-2019) imitation soon.