J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe: The Other Shirley Yang Movie

Imagine if Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman both starred in films about the same bestselling action hero that released in theaters one or two months apart. That is exactly what happened in China when both Shu Qi and Yao Chen starred as Shirley Yang in films based on the Ghost Blows Out the Light franchise. In a quirk of subsidiary sales, one group controls the rights to the first four novels and another controls the concluding four. The latter released Mojin: The Lost Legend slightly behind their competitors in China, but it was the first to reach our shores. Now we can go back to the beginning (and get thoroughly confused) with Lu Chuan’s rip-roaring Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Well Go USA.

Frankly, the two films taken in tandem seem to be contradictory and mutually exclusive, but who knows what genre business might have gone on in subsequent books? Regardless, it is probably best to consider them separately and discretely. As Chronicles opens, Hu Bayi and Yang Ping (as she is originally known) are not yet tomb-raiders by choice, but that is sort of what they are doing anyway as a reluctant soldier and nurse under orders of the PLA. In 1979, some very strange fossils have been discovered in the Mongolian desert, so Yang’s archaeologist father has been assigned to the excavation. Some mysterious force does its best to dissuade the Red Army with a great big explosion, but even that will not be enough of a hint. As volunteers for the investigatory team, Hu and the Yangs follow a freshly revealed passage all the way to the Demon Pagoda. At this point, this get a little hazy.

Five years later, the Yangs are still missing and Hu is still eating his heart out over Ping. He has been transferred to a government research institute, but he is intercepted in-transit by a mysterious librarian, somewhat in the tradition of the TNT series. While sorting and shelving he will bone up on Prof. Yang’s research into the Ghostly Tribe, the remnant of an alien race secretly living among humans. However, when Ping Yang resurfaces (renamed Shirley by the doctors treating her catatonia), Hu rejoins her latest expedition. Unfortunately, he finds she has somewhat changed. Of course, there will not be much time to worry about that when the unearthly monsters attack.

Not unlike the competing Mojin, the best sequences of Ghostly Tribe are probably earlier period adventure rather than the contemporary half. If anything, Ghostly Tribe is even more ambiguous in its portrayal of the great, patriotic PLA. Yao Chen and Mark Chao arguably have better chemistry as Yang and Hu than their Mojin counterparts, but Shu Qi and Chen Kun have greater individual screen presence and action cred. Tribe’s special effects are all first class, but there isn’t the sort of tomb-raiding action you will find in Mojin.

Regardless, Ghostly Tribe is just over-the-top enough to be good clean fun, but not so far gone that is becomes ridiculous. Lu and American screenwriters Bobby and Nick Roth put about every adventure element into a blender and hit puree. It works rather well, thanks to the breakneck pacing and Yao’s impressive range. Recommended for fans of Mojin and Jules Verne-esque romps, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is now available on DVD from Well Go USA.

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