"Stop shooting at the tiny bats!" Despite it happening way early on, that's the point where Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe initially lost me, when a cluster of adventurers deep into the frigid Chinese mountains kept firing equally tiny bullets at a swarm of inbound, cracker-sized bats that ignite upon contact with human bodies. It's one of many head-scratcher moments in this visual-effects blockbuster, one whose only unique trait comes in the assortment of creatures that appear sporadically -- and with little rhyme or reason -- across its drawn-out two hours of fantastical gibberish. It seems as if the computer-wizardry event films from China have reached a similar point of generic duplication and threadbare plotting as that of the robot, alien, or disaster money-makers of Hollywood, as Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe conjures up a bunch of nonsensical mythology in creation of a lethargic monster-movie adventure that has trouble distinguishing itself from its contemporaries.
The premise starts out showing enough potential as Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe transports its story to the Mongolian border at the tail end of the '70s, where researchers and volunteers from the military have been sent to unearth the remains of unusual creatures reported in the area for several decades. Included in the team are renowned researcher Professor Yang (Wang Qingxiang) and his daughter, Ping (Yao Chen), whose fleeting affection also leads young military man Hu Bayi (Mark Chao) to follow along with the excursion. With the cavern sealed behind them, the large group ventures into the icy, harsh expanses throughout the mountains, only for them to encounter more complications than they bargained for. A range of accidents and attacks from mythical creatures devastates the group, leaving Hu Bayi traumatized after his escape. Many years pass with the young soldier studying abroad following the tragedy, only for him to be drawn back to the location upon hearing reports that those who died in the expedition -- as well as his fleeting love, Ping --- have been seen alive and want to return to the Demon Pagoda responsible for it all.
Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe plays out similarly to another Chinese blockbuster from last year, Mojin: The Lost Legend, and for good reason: they're both based on the same popular series of fantasy novels, Ghost Blows Out the Light, where a team of explorers have their lives changed by an abandoned mystical discovery that'll eventually, after years of anguish, lead them back to the site. Notably, our hero Hu Bayi feels the pull back to the site in order to reunite with the woman he fell in love with during the ordeal, believed to be a victim of the magical catastrophe. Grandiose visual effects craft a cavernous atmosphere housing something truly other-worldly in their journeys, surrounded by vivid blasts of color shrouded in stretches of dark, earthen depths and defended by waves of monsters. Those aren't the only similarities, either: none of this ends up being terribly convincing or absorbing in Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe either, where the filmmakers got so caught up in rendering the eye-candy grandness of the visuals that they didn't stop to think about the practicality of what's happening in their world.
Strange mythology gets tossed around in Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe that ties together large and powerful monoliths with bizarre creatures and visitors from outer space, yet it all comes across as if the writers were throwing outlandish material at the wall and hoping it'll stick to form a coherent picture. Very little of it does, and it's maddening to try and follow along with the ways in which this universe bends and molds to the whims of shallow adventures where so little happens. Even worse, the story's design -- two bold journeys through the hostilities of unearthly beasts at the beginning and end -- leaves a wide, dull stretch in the middle designed to bridge the gap between the past and the present, one that assumes that the drama of Hu Bayi's studies in demonism and longing for his lost love are compelling enough to carry the momentum. Unfortunately, that isn't the case: between musings in a library and goofy musical numbers in a "western" restaurant, the pacing and interest level take a massive nosedive while progressing the underlying mystery between its big monster confrontations.
Many of the issues one might have with Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe could, feasibly, be overlooked had it delivered on the creature-feature thrills that it emphasized in its marketing: large fossils of what looks like dragons, imposing silhouettes dropping behind a curtain at a theater, brisk explosions and empowered super-humans. The computer-generated effects deliver a portion of that experience, giving life to beasts large and small, swift and lumbering, as they tear through both the snowy caps of the Mongolian-border mountains and an abandoned, almost post-apocalyptic industrial town where the monsters had unleashed a prior attack. Despite the scope of their presence, the battles and interactions with the monsters don't have enough smarts pushing them forward, resulting in scenes where these imposing forces of nature are reduced to poor instincts to prolong the action and keep the story moving on. Since they're the only truly distinctive part of this "other" take on a fantasy-novel series, it's tough to justify pushing through such drawn-out silliness for what are essentially snarling wargs and the ethereal masters behind them.
Video and Audio:
Even though there's not a lot of positive things to say about the film itself, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe does possess some incredibly attractive cinematography, featuring rich lighting in cavernous shots, icy blues and whites, and expansive shots of scenery to emphasize the long journey. Similarly to Mojin: The Lost Legend, Well Go USA's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer relishes deep contrast and vibrant colors in the digital photography, where details never get crushed out in shadowy scenes and heaps of color -- aqua blue energy blasts, eruptions of flame -- are strongly saturated. There is a lengthy scene in the depths of water, however, that copes with serious banding issues; whether that's the fault of the digital cinematography or the disc is up in the air, but the blue bands are incredibly pronounced. Strong details can be spotted in the gristle of a desert atmosphere and the nuances of dank cavern textures, while the digital effects involving miniature bat wings and the hides of wolf-like beasts are clear and strong. Movement in 1080p can be a tad jerky at times during broader digital effects sequences, but those are the only grievances for a largely stunning transfer of a contemporary blockbuster.
The Chinese DTS-HD Master Audio track boasts a hefty amount of activity as well, especially whenever the beasts get involved. Hefty bass responses come about in the rigors of battle, from explosions to the slamming of bodies against the ground, accompanied by fierce high-end clarity alongside gunshots and the clanging of metal. More understated effects, like heavy nostril sniffing and the clanging of chains, are nuanced and well-balanced in the center channel. The track really uses the surround channels, too, especially in the film's lengthy final battle where a profound "swirling" effects travels all across the rear-end of the stage with impeccably clarity and responsiveness. Verbal strength remains natural and concisely aware of the front-end channel separation, and the energetic music sustains a constant but unobtrusive presence at all times against the sound design. In short, it's a big and bold action-movie track, and Well GO USA's handling of the track delivers as such. The subtitles are decent, barring a few hiccups in grammar and word placement.
Along with a quick Trailer (1:14, 16x9 HD), Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe comes with an almost equally-brief Making of the Visual Effects (2:20, 16x9 HD) featurette, which rushes through interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that are pleasant enough to watch in their brevity.
Driven by the expectation of monster-movie chaos, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe sports an insubstantial, oddball fantasy-action story that's been stretched out across two hours, one with heaps of slapdash mythology and world-building that never really takes the story anywhere intriguing. The film's brushes with monsters aren't enough to salvage the experience, either, none of which really quicken the pulse due to how awkward the beasts manage to look with what they do ... and how the humans respond to them. Best to Skip It, unless you're really desperate to see one or two vaguely new digital monsters on the big screen.