Now retired and living in New York in the 1980s best friends Hu Baiyi (Chen Kun), Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo) and Shirley Yang (Shu Qi) were formerly tomb raiders known as Mojin Xiaowei. Part of an ancient order employed by Chinese Emperors to liberate valuable artifacts for the good of the country. When an old associate named Grill (Xia Yu) tempts Wang with a lucrative offer, he signs on for a mission to raid the tomb of an Inner Mongolian Princess for Lady Ying Caiyong (Liu Xiao-Qing), a billionaire business woman with a creepy cult-like entourage. Justly suspicious, Hu and Shirley reluctantly trail the group only to find the tomb is where he and Wang lost Ding Sitian (AngelaBaby), the woman they both loved some twenty years back during a Communist Youth League mission to clear an old underground Japanese military base. As they return to the tomb they find themselves fighting to survive the same sinister forces that plagued them before, whilst trying to prevent their evil employer from getting her hands on an amulet that can raise the dead.
In a Chinese variation on the Deep Impact vs. Armageddon scenario, Mojin - The Lost Legend was one of two competing blockbusters released in 2015 based on the popular novel "Ghost Blows Out the Light" by Zhang Muye. Fortunately both films delivered fairly different takes on not just the source material but its supernatural subject matter. While Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is an agreeably quirky and intriguing monster romp, Mojin has the benefit of a starrier cast along with bombastic set-pieces from rising blockbuster filmmaker Wu Er-Shan. It features the sort of showy 3D sequences one would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster along the lines of The Mummy (either Tom Cruise or Brendan Fraser version, take your pick). Wu Er-Shan's video-game-like staging of various supernatural set-pieces saps some of the substance from Zhang Muye's story. However the film pulls off the odd genuinely unsettling moment and includes interesting subtext.
Although the constant flashbacks to Hu Baiyi and Wang Kaixuan's fresh-faced past in 1969 disrupt plot momentum, they do go some way towards humanizing the characters (the love triangle is well-played and genuinely moving) and reinforcing its themes. Both the film and its protagonists are consistently skeptical about various belief systems. Be that religion, consumerism or even, somewhat more subtly, Communist doctrine. In flashbacks we see slogan-spouting young men and women, fired up by Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, desecrate the once-sacred tombs only to end up vainly waving their little red books at hordes of flesh-eating bugs and reanimated Japanese zombies. Illusions play a central role in the story which emphasizes the importance of comradeship and simple faith in one's fellow man as a means of seeing through false ideals. Counterbalancing Mojin's more satirical aspects however is a pervading nationalism manifest in the spotlighting of 'foreign devils' among Lady Ying Caiyong's entourage, including shifty westerner Mark (Jonathan Kos-Read) and bleach-blonde Japanese psycho-babe Yoko (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-Ling). On top of that wisecracking Wang slings a few barbs at degenerate westerners every few minutes, whether griping about "sick America", berating Shirley for her amoral and therefore westernized values, or suggesting the villains "go back to the Capitalists and drink Coca-Cola." Which is all very rich given the current climate in China.
Muddled political commentary aside, Mojin has much to recommend including engaging performances from Chen Kun, essaying an appreciably sensitive hero, and the always-lovely Shu Qi (arguably slumming it here in light of her run of acclaimed art-house roles). Jake Pollock's outstanding cinematography captures the stunning Mongolian vistas in all their picturesque glory. Once the action kicks into high gear the film becomes a fun roller-coaster romp even though its hard not to conclude that the central message, extolling the importance of letting go of the past in order to keep moving boldly forward, is one Chairman Mao would approve.