THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA is a 2017 FX-laden wuxia movie from the super team of director Yuen Woo-ping (TAI CHI MASTER, WING CHUN) and writer/producer Tsui Hark (A BETTER TOMORROW II, VAMPIRE HUNTERS), their first collaboration since 2002’s BLACK MASK 2: CITY OF MASKS (which was directed by Tsui with Yuen as martial arts director).
This is a type of modern Chinese blockbuster that seems to be very off-putting to some people because it’s absolutely slathered in digital bells and whistles: fiery bombastic credits, virtual camera pulling back from a spider’s leg to an asteroid in outer space, humans morphing into animated monsters, magic shit twirling around all over the place, clearly designed for 3D. Also it has lots of broad humor, cartoon physics, exaggerated facial expressions – the kind of stuff Stephen Chow perfected and nobody else, even these legends, can easily match.
It’s not my very favorite type of movie, but it’s something I can have fun with. The unbridled joy for putting cool and/or preposterous things on screen – fantastical shit for the sake of fantastical shit – always makes me smile, even if I can’t follow all of it.
I think this one gets off on wobbly footing because the mythology narrated at the beginning is not very coherent, or at least doesn’t translate well culturally. I still don’t really understand what Qimen or Dunjia are, but I did okay without them. The relevant thing is that the characters are all fighting over a deadly weapon. It’s called “the Dunjia device” or “the World Destroyer,” it’s inside an orb, the animation seems to imply it’s a magical way of splitting an atom? The point is, it’s dangerous, and an alien wants it. He came down on an asteroid to get it. What a dick.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m on the side of the humans. New constable Dao Yichang (Aarif Lee Chi-Ting, who played Bruce Lee in BRUCE LEE, MY BROTHER) is performing feats of strength to show off for everybody at the station, and the bosses are intimidated, so they get rid of him by drawing up fake wanted posters and sending him to search for these people who don’t exist. It seems to work – he doesn’t ever go back to work! But somehow he finds a guy who looks just like one of the drawings and follows him. A strange lady named Dragonfly (Ni Ni, THE WARRIOR’S GATE, SHOCK WAVE 2) follows the same guy, because he set off a magic compass she carries in a holster.
It’s the type of movie where a character can just sit on the roof and watch like this
while a conversation plays out below, like he’s the fuckin Cheshire Cat. The suspect is trying to get a room at an inn, but they won’t let him in because he’s carrying a pet fish in a bowl. Then the fish turns giant and eats him, I guess? The digital FX in this movie are a mixed bag, but here’s an example of them at their best. It doesn’t look “real,” but neither do the sandworms in BEETLEJUICE, you know? I love this guy.
Dao wants to arrest the fish, which Dragonfly says is absurd. Both try to fight it and chase it across rooftops into a brothel, where Dao is revealed as a regular, and I believe Dragonfly is too? Either way she catches the fish in a net, makes it shrink, because she’s actually a monster hunter of the Wuyin Clan. She was in disguise before, she’s magical, and she throws powder in people’s faces to MEN IN BLACK them after they see some of this shit, because her clan’s duty is to “protect mankind without leaving a trace behind.”
Unfortunately the fish was a trick, captured on purpose to act as a tracker when she returns to the Wuyin’s version of the Batcave. The clan gather to discuss a new home base, using their secret sign language so the fish can’t spy on them. Also they have a custom that if they have feelings for someone they slap them, so that leads to some hijinks.
The clan awaits the return of Brother Zhuge (Da Peng, JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK), who’s out on a quest to find their prophesied new leader who will find the Dunjia device and open it. He tracks her down, a young girl (Zhou Dongyu, KUNG FU MONSTERS) locked in the dungeon-like “uncurables wing” of a medical clinic, because she occasionally uncontrollably transforms into a blue phoenix-like creature and eats people. She doesn’t have a name, so he calls her Circle, after the tattoo on her arm that marks her as the chosen one.
Their alien enemy Red Eye, a shapeshifting being made of woven red fibers, climbs out of the asteroid and destroys the Temple of Ancestors to free a blue winged demon named White Tiger, who is buried underground in a chained up metal ball. White Tiger brags that he was faking his imprisonment to make the humans kill each other, so Red Eye gets pissed off that he bothered to rescue him. These two animated characters proceed to seek world domination while butting heads and bickering, like Megatron and Starscream.
Dragonfly is easily the best character. She always looks cool and she has a bad attitude that of course hides a good soul. This is illustrated in the scene where she’s looking fucking cool smoking and pouting on a roof in the rain and sees Dao, who has lost two limbs fighting the monsters, get dumped off in the street. So she brings him to shelter and takes care of him and they make him excellent wooden prosthetics that make him whole again.
Meanwhile, the leaders of five clans fly in to have a meeting with the Great Fortune Teller at Dragon Gate Cave. One is named Eight-Arms Ape, another is a ghoul from “Seven-Color Hell” who wears skeleton facepaint and does a thing called “Soul-Sapping Palm” that attacks people with a giant hand made of black smoke. You know how it is.
The Fortune Teller was anonymously sent the Dunjia device (or some other powerful weapon said to crush mountains?) so they all pass it around and it does different animated things in their hands. They realize they have to combine the powers of all five clans to activate the device, but one of the clan leaders is an imposter – Red Eye, who boasts that he fed the others “strange flowers and essence of toad” to give them powers, but also mind control them. (That’s good news because in this movie it’s more fun to watch humans fight each other than humans fight animated characters.)
Sometimes it seems like they’re making up the mythology and powers as they go along, which is the Tsui Hark way, in my opinion. It makes for a pretty random story structure, but also a high volume of cool shit. Circle uses her energy to grow Dao’s limbs back, but nobody notices for a while. That may or may not be why he discovers he has Jedi/Neo powers to control a swarm of floating discs thrown at him by one of the clan leaders. Also he resists a Fiery Palm attack and headbutts a guy into crumbles. Why not?
They find a ship called the Nether Mansion in the middle of the desert. It looks like a cave on the inside. They use an ancient version of grenades, they glide and float around, turn into puffs of smoke or blankets blowing in the wind. Monsters can imitate people like Mystique in X-MEN. Their true forms can be revealed by acupuncture, or spotted hiding as 2D animation in a painting. I love when Dragonfly realizes she’s talking to a fake Big Brother because he doesn’t understand her sign language. Turns out he’s the Lord of Hell in disguise trying to steal Circle’s blood.
My biggest problem with the movie is that there’s so much super powered twirling of fire, smoke and energy in the fights that it rarely feels like a kung fu movie, exactly. It’s a related but different type of fighting, most of the time. But it’s still beautiful to watch them move, that’s for sure. The action choreographers are Yuen’s younger brothers Yuen Cheung-Yan (TRUE LEGEND) and Yuen Shun-Yi (MAN OF TAI CHI).
Wikipedia claims it’s a remake of Yuen’s 1982 film THE MIRACLE FIGHTERS, which I have not seen, but it doesn’t seem to have any of the same story or characters, so… citation needed on that one. I’m also skeptical about claimes that a sequel exists, though the ending definitely implies one was intended.
THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA was Yuen’s movie between CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY and MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY, and I don’t like it as much as either of those, but it still has some of that wild energy and those visual skills at play. It’s also Tsui’s movie right before directing DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS, which is way better. But they’re in a similar vein, so maybe he had to warm up with this one to do such a good job on that one. Part of the training montage before the big fight.
And, you know what – Yuen Woo-ping and Tsui Hark just practicing is better than some people at their best. So I appreciate it.