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Looks every bit gorgeous; but with poorly developed story and characters, as well as loose direction, 'Mural' is ultimately as interesting as watching paint dry
We can tell you this much about Gordon Chan after watching almost twenty years of his films- the guy is an action man, and despite his attempts at dabbling in other genres, it is his action movies like Jet Li's 'Fist of Legend', Jackie Chan's 'Thunderbolt' and the Michael Wong SDU films 'Final Option', 'First Option' and 'Option Zero' that have truly been outstanding. We say this also because 'Mural' is Gordon's attempt at a fantasy romance, and like his other non-action genre forays, it is ultimately disappointing.
In all fairness, this is not the first time that he has tried his hand at something similar. Gordon was also at the helm of 2008's surprise hit 'Painted Skin', adapted as well from a Liaozhai story by author Pu Songling, and it was the success of that earlier movie (whose Chinese title bears remarkable resemblance both written and pronounced) which led to the genesis of 'Mural'. But whereas that movie had a strong lead action star in Donnie Yen and therefore could boast some decent action sequences, 'Mural' has Mainland actor Deng Chao in the lead, and let's just say that he is no Donnie Yen.
Deng plays the righteous young scholar Zhu Xiaolian who lands up in the Land of Ten Thousand Blossoms after getting distracted en route to his imperial exams by a mural depicting some beautiful women. Needless to say, Xiaolian will find love- and so too will some of the women in the kingdom who have been taught by their evil Fairy Godmother (Yan Ni) that men are all scumbags and love is strictly forbidden. But despite the complications that follow, Deng's role as the virtuous idealist fighting for his right to love is essentially dull and simplistic, not helped by the actor's straightforward delivery.
The same could be said of his other two male companions- the timorous servant Hou Xia (played by a whiny and annoying Baobeier), and the mountain bandit Meng Longtan (Collin Chou) whom Xiaolian and Hou Xia were in pursuit of right before ending up in the temple with the titular painting. Both these supporting characters are given little development in the story- Hou Xia gets to show his caring side by taking in a woman rejected by Meng as his wife, while Meng has a change of heart when he sees Xiaolian's sacrificial love- and the same can be said of the bevy of Chinese actresses each contributing nothing more than their looks as the other fairies in the Land.
The fault lies with the slackly written story credited to Frankie Tam, Maria Wong, Lau Ho-Leung and Gordon Chan (the latter two also behind 'Painted Skin'). The first half of the movie fumbles with little direction, with the writers and director Chan content on letting the characters wander about CGI-ed vistas, leaving the second half struggling for some dramatic focus on the love story between Xiaolian and Shaoyao (played by Deng's wife in real life Sun Li). But with too much time spent on Zhu's apparent obsession with another fairy- the soft-spoken and honest Mudan (Taiwanese TV presenter Liu Yang playing against type)- and his quest to rescue her at the hands of the Queen, even the romance between Xiaolian and Shaoyao never quite convinces.
That the intended love story lacks any genuine emotion is also because Deng Chao and Sun Li share little on-screen chemistry. Sun Li plays her character icy and distant, and the consequence is that we end up rooting for Xiaolian and Mudan- instead of Shaoyao- to get together. The other couplings also don't have much emotional heft, so what should have been a touching supernatural fantasy romance ends up bland and uninspiring. More unforgivable is the miscasting of Collin Chou, the action star best known for playing 'The Matrix's' Seraph out of place in a romantic movie.
Ditto for fellow action maestro Andy On (think the baddie in 'True Legend'), who has a bit part as the Queen's bodyguard with obvious affections for Shaoyao. Not only is his role sorely underdeveloped (the film hints at a love triangle between him, Xiaolian and Shaoyao but never quite gets there), he and Collin get short shrift in the poorly choreographed, wire-ful action sequences that would have ended up as outtakes in their other action films. There is also plenty of CGI, and while they are impressive, it's perplexing why a film with perfectly good martial arts stars would waste them while trying to better their Hollywood counterparts in the visual effects department.
But yes- we'll be fair to praise the team behind the CG graphics of the movie, which is probably one of the best ever done for a China-Hong Kong movie. Deserving of praise too are Cyrus Ho's beautiful set design and Bobo Ng's lavish colourful costumes- pity then that their efforts are wasted on a story that could have done with more plotting and a film that should have been done with tighter direction. Coming after the disastrous 'King of Fighters', 'Mural' once again finds the talented Gordon Chan out of his league- and fans of his earlier action movies should probably steer clear of this, since it will only make you long for the kind of films he used to make.
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