J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia: Cosmic Wuxia from the Pen of Tsui Hark

The power of Dunjia, whatever that is, trumps “The Force” every time. That is why the secret Wuyinmen clan needs it. Like a cross between the Men in Black and The Four, the Wuyinmen have sworn to defend their wuxia world from evil alien monsters, but their strength has been depleted. Ironically, they might get a mojo infusion from an unlikely source when signs indicate a shapeshifting monster is destined to be their new leader in Yuen Woo-ping’s The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (trailer here), written and produced by Tsui Hark, which opens this Friday in New York.

Rookie constable Dao Yichang is honest, but not very bright. That is two strikes against him, but he keeps plugging away. Several times, he stumbles across Iron Dragonfly of the Wuyinmen Clan as she pursues monsters in human guise, but she gives him the MIB forgetfulness treatment before he can ask too many questions. Still, she kinds of likes the lug, so when he is seriously injured in an unearthly melee, she tends to his decapitated limbs (don’t worry, they’ll grow back eventually).

Thus far, Xiao Yuan has yet to bring out similarly nurturing instincts in her. Due to prophesy mumbo jumbo, the clan’s “big brother” and her ambiguously Tracy-and-Hepburn-esque comrade Zhuge Qingyun are convinced she is destined to be the next Wuyinmen leader, but Iron Dragonfly is skeptical. Regardless, they need to find a way to tap into the power of Dunjia to defeat the underworld demigods and space monsters conspiring against the human world.

In some ways, Thousand Faces could be considered the ultimate Tsui Hark film, because he gives absolute free reign to his cosmic flights of fantasy. It makes his Journey to the West franchise look gritty and grounded. Consider the climatic “hand of Buddha” scene from Conquering the Demons as its starting baseline. If you can explain just what Dunjia is, you’re way ahead of the game. Near as we can tell, it combines elements of yin & yang, Qi, the Force, and a double espresso.

Regardless, there is plenty of fighting to be done, often against Earth-shattering foes. Fortunately, that plays to the strengths of Yuen, the fight choreographer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy, as well as the director of Netflix’s Crouching Tiger sequel. He has a talent for coordinating gravity-defying moves and colossal set pieces, even if they don’t always make a lot of sense, strictly speaking.

Aarif Lee probably gives his most assured performance yet as the resilient Constable Dao. Wu Bai is massively steely and cool looking as the interim Wuyinmen boss, while Zhou Dongyu is ridiculously sweet and vulnerable as Xiao Yuan in human form. However, Ni Ni totally owns the film as the heroic but acid-tongued Iron Dragonfly. Few wuxia protagonists can match her cutting attitude.

Obviously, Thousand Faces was conceived as a franchise, because the final scene totally sets up the next film. Frankly, it is funnier than most Marvel stingers, so it should leave fans primed for more. In fact, by the time we reach the epilogue, we come to rather like this unruly band of near-superheroes. Recommended for fans of high-flying, fantastical wuxia action, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the AMC Loews 34th Street.

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