Monday, December 31, 2018

Mojin: The Worm Valley

Nothing challenges a viewer’s impulse to impose narrative continuity like the three films and three television series based on the bestselling Chinese novel franchise, Ghost Blows Out the Light. The first two films, Mojin: The Lost Legend and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe were produced by different companies and featured completely different casts. The third film has been positioned as a sequel to Lost Legend, but makes slightly more sense as a prequel (only slightly). It is hard to see how the films could possibly fit together, considering the central relationships vary from film to film. Maybe it all makes sense if you include the TV series (two of the three feature the same cast and creatives). To further confuse fans, there is yet another entirely new cast portraying the popular characters in Fei Xing’s Mojin: The Worm Valley (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Eons ago, a despotic queen cursed her unruly subjects and all their descendants with a brand on the back shoulder and an early death. Alas, the curse persists to this day, including for several of the adventurers associated with tomb “borrowers” Hu Bayi and Shirley Yang. The have an expedition planned deep into the heart of Worm Valley to recover an artifact that might lift the curse. Or something like that.

Technically, there are no worms in Worm Valley, but there are giant crabs, scorpions, snakes (close enough), and lizards. If you really want to be pedantic, there are not any ghosts either. Logic is also pretty scarce in these parts as well, but it works pretty well as an At the Earth’s Core-Skull Island-style monster movie. The assorted creature effects mostly maintain the right balance of believability and cheesiness (fans will understand what that means).

Lost Legend was a box office smash in the Chinese-language markets, so it is hard to fathom why Worm Valley brought in an entirely new cast, but the less recognizable names were surely more affordable. Gu Xuan has the difficult task of subbing in for Shu Qi, but she is still the best thing going for the film, making a much more convincing Shirley Yang than Alicia Vikander did as a Lara Croft. Cai Heng is an energy-sapping Gloomy Gus as Hu, but Cheng Taishen adds some maturity and seasoning as Sun Jiaoshou, the academic scholar on the expedition. Yet, it is Chen Yusi who lands the film’s big emotional scene as Zhou Linglong, the cursed daughter of Sun’s senior colleague.

Ironically, Worm Valley is probably less confusing if you have not seen any of the previous Ghost Blows Out the Light films (we can’t even speculate about the TV series). Yet, there is logic to Fei’s strategy. Instead of wasting time with dubious retcons, he has giant kaiju monsters chasing Hu and Yang, early and often. There is a good deal of meathead fun throughout Worm Valley, but it will make the hobgoblins of consistency in fans’ heads explode. Recommended for fans of Lost World and Land of the Lost fantasy-adventure, Mojin: The Worm Valley opens this Friday (1/4) in New York, at the AMC Empire.