House of Women
There was plenty of hype for Mural in Singapore as far back as June this year, where we had writer-director-producer Gordon Chan and his key cast members gracing ScreenSingapore where only a trailer, yes a trailer, got played. And frankly that was probably the high point of that opening evening given the very sub-par opening film, and the stars decked out in nines no doubt raised the temperatures a little during the opening party. From what I remembered from the visuals, there was the promise of a special effects spectacle complete with martial arts choreography that seemed like a shout back to the days of the Zu Mountain, but this quasi-sequel/follow up film to Painted Skin in reality gave out only a whimper rather than a roar.
I would not dispute however the intent and the potential of Mural the story, where stripped away of its glossy exterior and distracting beautiful casts, is at its essence a thick love story exploring the various facets of affection, which is so applicable today that this could be remade on the cheap having it set in the modern day. The affairs of the hearts of characters here are convoluted, but I suppose that's how it works in real life too, since there are times when it is unrequited, or serendipitous, developed over time or being that proverbial love at first sight. Then there are those moments when love develops out of pity, or out of convenience, fear, experimentation, or even having mixed feelings misconstrued as the emotion itself. At its core this is what having stared at Mural when the dust settled, is about.
But it's packaged as a spiritual action thriller that had an overly long setup, which ran in an illogical way even if you want to push it as such. Scholar Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao) and his manservant Houxia (Baobeier) are chasing bandit Meng Longtan (Collin Chou), and they end up in a monastery run by a monk (Eric Tsang). While resting, Xiaolian chances upon a large mural on the wall depicting many ladies, in to his surprise one of the girls Mudan (Liu Yang) appeared, and together they stumble back to her spiritual world, never given a name because it's unconfirmed whether heaven or hell, or a harem even that wouldn't be out of place in films like Sex and Zen 3D - though here more Zen than Sex since it's a Chinese film, a land inhabited by only women save for one owl-protector (Andy On, and the owl was copied from Clash of the Titans 1981 version). To any man, yours truly included, that place itself is Paradise.
But the chunky opening has Mudan trying to smuggle Xiaolian around the building to avoid being detected by the Queen ruler (Yan Ni), and with Xiaolian being the busybody roaming around, he's soon discovered and had to escape, but not before gaining the attention of the Queen's second in command Shaoyao (Sun Li) who also falls for the man, and interacting with Mudan's friend Cuizhu (Xie Nan), which sets all of their hearts aflutter before going back to the real world, knowing that his appearance and escape will cause trouble and punishment for Mudan. So he journeys back with Houxia and Longtan, and they soon get propositioned by the Queen to choose any woman they fancy for marriage, and it comes with an exchange policy if one is unsatisfied, and polygamy is not frowned upon too. So you get my point why I say this is paradise, since there's hardly an ugly lady around, who all have special abilities, and yearning, just yearning, for the presence of any man. I'm betting some dollars that some sleazy Cat III movie will be made using this premise.
It took a long while for establishing scenes to find their footing and to do proper introductions, before you come to a compromise that the characters are in some form of perfect landscape ruled by an iron fist, where they are not allowed to love or reproduced, mentioned in passing that they drink from some magical fountain to impregnate themselves, and to accept the fact that they are fairies, not ghosts. Then the film develops into the usual ruler-is-evil flick with a rescue mission in tow when Xiaolian decides to probe around paradise to find the woman he put into trouble, and rescue her. This leads to more special effects opportunities involving giant turtles, flying beasts and such, while also allowing plenty of wire kung fu to happen during battles, where most of the best parts are already contained in the trailer.
Gordon Chan and his team of storytellers seemed to have lost it during the opening and first act, then stumbled around and finally found their ground with the narrative, only to lose it all with the final few scenes that couldn't decide how best to seek closure, even ending with a coda that added to the ridiculousness. Chan allowed the film to go all over the place, which accounted for its run time of over two hours, with plenty of wasteful scenes that could have been excised, or focus could have been put on its key characters. Instead you emerge with a feeling that some shots were in just to show off the special effects. Even Mark Lee Ping Bin's cinematography cannot save the day since the story gave way toward the end, which was a pity because it had found a gem to latch onto with regards to the more philosophical approach which was somewhat like The Wachowski's Matrix films involving the Architect and the Oracle being involved in some kind of grand plan and bet, but Mural failed to capitalize on that.
Instead we get constantly reminded on the types of men that exist in this world with regards to romance, like an instructional booklet for women anywhere – there are some who are promiscuous as seen as the Longtan character, those who are the one woman type in Xiaolian, and those who are subservient, you know, in today's context the ones carrying their girlfriends handbags around. The three male characters here predictably falls into each of the characters above just so we know which are the kinds of guys we should aspire to be like, or from the opposite sex, which of the three are their flavour of the day. Andy On's presence only adds some much needed muscle for battles in its limited action scenes, since only him and Collin Chou are the bona fide action stars dutifully wasted in the film, whose true focus is on relationships that could have been done without the swords and sorcery. The actresses in the film, collectively, are some of the best flower vases in Chinese cinema, looking jaw-dropping and stunningly incredible in their costumes, and their call to order was how they each could act cool, coy, cute or shed tears on a whim.
Eventually Mural is that roller coaster ride you have been warned about, with highs when the narrative gets to what it wants to say, and lows when it suddenly decides to tangent off into something qutie implausible or ridiculous, fantasy film limits notwithstanding. And at the end there's no exhilaration when you step off, only that feeling of dread and a pitiful loss of potential when it had so much bubbling underneath in what it wanted to say, but couldn't decide on a climax, and further tanked itself with its coda. Like a lover who desperately wants your attention and does everything he/she can for that, only to be resoundingly rejected for trying too hard. I won't go as far as to say this is one of the worst this year, but it just barely stayed above that mark.