Yuen Woo-ping may be best known for his work as a fight choreographer, but he has also served as the de-facto director for several of the greats from the martial arts genre, from Drunken Master to Iron Monkey and Tai-Chi Master. One common thread between those works is that the hand-to-hand battles are strung together by relatively straightforward and unobtrusive stories, allowing the physicality of the actors and the combat itself to move around unencumbered from the weight of too-much narrative. The Thousand Faces of Dunjia couldn't be more different from Yuen Woo-ping's earlier work if it tried, in which fantasy-laden storytelling swirls together with copious computer-generated effects to tell an overly-complicated tale of warring factions, clandestine aliens, prophesized leaders and weapons required by powerful monster-like critters to conquer the earth. Between swaths of dizzying plotting and visuals, very little genuine martial-arts action goes down, amounting to a peculiarly labored, somewhat deceptive, and mostly unbearable blockbuster from China.
Shortly after he's accepted into a local law-enforcement regiment, fresh-faced officer Dao (Aarif Lee) gets sent on a wild goose chase by his superiors, a means of both hazing him and forcing him out of the department. While searching for perps, Dao stumbles upon a suspicious individual that draws him into something unexpected: a world of alien-like monsters, and the clan of warriors who monitor them and keep them under wraps. Upon his meeting with Metal Dragonfly (Ni Ni), the clan discovers the emergence of a plot for the aliens to come out of hiding and reclaim the world, while also dealing with the discovery of their new, predestined leader in a most unexpected place. While the clan remains skeptical of Dao, they tentatively team up with the constable to take on those mythical forces, rushing to gain ownership of a particular weapon and unlock their own deeply-hidden powers before time runs out.
Written by frequent Yuen Woo-ping collaborator Tsui Hark -- who had a hand in creating the successful Chinese Ghost Story and Detective Dee fantasy franchises -- The Thousand Faces of Dunjia is a pure chunk of blockbuster whimsy, packed full of recognizable tropes and borrowed devices from other films. Something that goes mostly undisclosed by the trailers, this ends up trying to be a low-key rehash of Men in Black, of all things, in its story of hidden "aliens" and the clandestine police force that keeps the truth hidden while quashing threats. It was the point when Metal Dragonfly uses "memory moths" to make someone forget everything they've seen to a specific time and place that the similarities become clear, as did the script's awkward efforts to force that angle upon the ancient Chinese period. Couple that with unnecessarily dense plotting involving superpowers conveniently bottled up in orbs, random selection of leaders for the organization regardless of age, and intense monsters that require specific weapons for whatever reason, and you've got an unbelievable mess of a story that's simply too much.
Labored plotting like this can blend into the background of fantasy-action films, though, offering just enough to prop up up tentpole sequences and the intended signature elements of the film's momentum, assumed here to be martial-arts complexity based off the creatives forces involved. Instead, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia becomes overwhelmingly focused on bountiful computer-generated effects bringing monsters and superpowers to life, with very little genuine hand-to-hand combat. As if Yuen Woo-ping and Tsui Hark received a directive to jack up the outlandishness and idiosyncrasy from the popular Chinese Ghost Story remakes or Tsui Hark's own Detective Dee, the unnatural presence of monsters are prioritized in action sequences over natural human battles. Wings flap, fish flop around, worm-like tendrils wiggle in the air, and humans morph into other humans or towering, colorful beasts … yet the visual grandeur here plays more like distractions from what's not there, emotional substance and martial-arts engagement, than actual interest in the outrageousness being executed.
Between unconvincing swaths of computer wizardry, the humans of The Thousand Faces of Dunjia take stabs at blatant humor and prolonged over-explaining of what's ultimately an ordinary tale of good vs. evil. Peculiar sexist humor and behavior -- especially the repeated use of obligatory face-slaps as punishment for fraternization among the clan -- lend an awkwardness to the film's exuberance that accomplishes little beyond stalling its momentum, producing many points where one wishes they'd all just shut up and start fighting. Once that actually does happen, they engage in battles driven far more by sorcery than actual martial arts, and while the particle effects involving smoke and water can be somewhat fun to watch, their contact with the real world stays a few steps behind a credible level of tangibility. Ending abruptly in a way that can't decide whether to start a franchise or quickly wrap things up because those plans were cancelled, Dunjia winds up being a clumsy, weakly-telegraphed thud from Yuen Woo-ping.
Video and Audio:
Regardless of how one feels about the visual design of The Thousand Faces of Dunjia -- it did receive nominations from the Asia Film Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards for its effects -- Well Go USA have done a bang-up job of presenting the film's colorful and ornate details in a vivid, refined 2.35:1-framed presentation. The appeal of the vibrant costume designs and vintage set decorations yield bold colors and intricate details, which are terrifically represented through the transfer's robust clarity. Flesh tones are satisfyingly smooth, and the contrast levels give close-ups impeccable depth, while dark cavernous sequences are given credible vastness and texture with a terrific grasp on black levels. All nuances of the digital effects are beautifully rendered here, for better and for worse: the vibrant over-saturation of blues and purples in a particular "alien" have dazzling color gradation; minute details in wormy tendrils and fish scales are impeccably sharp; and rushes of magic keep every pixel in place as they collide with bodies and crumbling stone, even if they appear janky in motion. Note that while there's an international version in 3D, and the effects appear integral to that experience, only 2D arrives here.
There's a lot going on in the Chinese language track for The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, and luckily Well Go USA have delivered a full-bodied 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio treatment to capture the full breadth of the vigorous atmosphere. The variety of sound elements scattered throughout the film stretch out across the stage, where rushing elemental bursts of sorcery fill the space. Thumping bodies, crumbling earth, and other fuller effects engage the lower-frequency range fairly well, though perhaps there isn't as much bass response as there should've been. The higher-end points involved with the casting of sorcery spells end up a little thin and without quite as much midrange heft, but the searing clarity and the sprawl across the channels make up for that, capturing intense digital atmosphere. Verbal delivery is sturdy yet unremarkable, while the music carefully interweaves with the action going on, discernible yet conscientious of the action-oriented vigor. The back-rear channel responsiveness isn't much of a factor and the higher-end inclination lends a general airiness that satisfies less than it should, but altogether it's a great-sounding track. The English subs are, for the most part, grammatically correct and discernible.
A very brief Making of Featurette (2:29, 16x9 HD) and a series of Trailers (HD) are all we've got.
The Thousand Faces of Dunjia is a strange bird: a wuxia fantasy with two of the genre's greats attached to it, Yuen Woo-ping and Tsui Hark, that piles on too much narrative gibberish and digital sorcery to appreciate the filmmakers' more noteworthy strengths. Flat humor that tries too hard, excessive reliance on outlandish digital effects, and a story that's both overly convoluted and simplistically dull, it's a perplexing blockbuster from China that needed more humanity