Brave demon slayer and defender of all that is good in Tang dynasty China, Zhong Kui (Chen Kun) delves into the netherworld to retrieve the Dark Crystal that holds souls demons stole from mortal men. His god-like mystical Master Zhang (Winston Chao) searches for a way to restore those souls to the people of the City of Hu including Zhong Kui's feisty kid sister Zhong Ling (Yang Zhi-Shan) and her would-be boyfriend Du Ping (Bao Bei Er). In retaliation the King of Hell dispatches the beautiful and powerful demoness Little Snow (Li Bingbing of Transformers: Age of Extinction but don't hold that against her). She arrives in Hu with a coterie of comely demon dancing girls that set hearts racing and draw large crowds to their nightly show. Armed with the new magical ability to morph into a ten-foot tall super-slayer, Zhong Kui goes along to investigate only to discover Little Snow is the woman he loved and lost three years ago.
2015 was the year China's box office gross surpassed that of the United States for the first time and blockbuster hits like Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal were the reason why. The effects-laden fantasy was a triumphant return to directing for Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and The Bride with White Hair (1993) fame, more than a decade after his underwhelming Michelle Yeoh vehicle The Touch (2002). Part of a wave of sprawling CGI laden fantasies to rake in the big bucks over the Chinese New Year, e.g. The Monkey King (2014), The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014), The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011), Painted Skin (2008), etc., the title conjures images of Elsa from Frozen (2013) battling Jim Henson's creatures from The Dark Crystal (1983) but is of course based upon a Chinese myth. Zhong Kui is traditionally regarded as a vanquisher of ghosts and demons. In China and Hong Kong his image is often painted on household gates as a guardian spirits and in some business sites particularly where high-value goods are involved. Remarkably aside from this his only other film appearance was in the surreal Bruceploitation film The Dragon Lives Again (1976).
Pau's exquisite visual sense ensures a feast for the eyes. He personally supervised the computer-animated effects that conjure a vivid world of Chinese mythology. Crucially, unlike many more static CGI fantasies, Pau works to keep things vibrant and create a tactile sense of a living, breathing realm of gods and monsters. The film lifts more than a few ideas from Avatar (2009), a big hit in China, specifically the concept of a mentor (in James Cameron's film a scientist, here a god-like martial arts master) endowing the hero with the ability to morph into a ten foot tall CGI alien alter-ego able to leap over valleys and streams and interact with an otherworldly realm. Little Snow also exhibits the ability to transform into a shard-slinging CGI snow demon resembling an anime heroine or character from the Final Fantasy games. Pau stages enough monster battles to impress Ray Harryhausen fans while the photo-realistic effects prove Asian fantasies have come a long way since the relatively primitive likes of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983).
To their credit the actors, a full-throttle Chen Kun in particular (whose rabid fan-base makes those devotees of Benedict Cumberbatch look sedate), stay lively in the midst of all the elaborate pyrotechnics though the plotting is languid. Personally one longs for the breathless pace of a Hong Kong New Wave fantasy. It boils down to the old conflict between love and duty: can Zhou Kui bring himself to kill the woman he loves to save humanity? Longtime genre fans will find the star-crossed romance, poetry duels and tragic longing all very familiar although the Chinese audience lapped it up. However, the film throws an interestingly subversive twist towards the end that harks back to an old wu xia (swordplay novel) tradition. As Zhong Kui uncovers unpleasant secrets about himself and others the film boldly castigates elders that exploit idealistic youth and demonize others to further their own political agenda. Not sure how the filmmakers snuck that past the mainland censor but good on 'em. Finally, you've got to love the irony of a demon fighting to save humanity from a false god.