Well-meaning Chinese constable Dao Yichang (Aarif Lee) bumbles into the middle of an epic conflict between alien monsters out to destroy the Earth and the Wuyin clan: a secret society with mystical powers who protect mankind. His first big shock comes when Dragonfly (Ni Ni), a badass and beautiful monster-slayer, bursts out of a rubber skin disguise to save him from a rapacious fish demon! Meanwhile Dragonfly's kinsman Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) infiltrates a famous medical school. Imprisoned in their dungeon lies winsome waif Xiao Yuan (Zhou Dong-You) whose dingbat demeanour masks her true potential. She may in fact be the saviour mankind needs, able to master an arcane weapon called Dunjia and halt a newly emerged group of terrifying super-monsters.
Big things were expected from this team-up between veteran kung fu filmmaker Yuen Woo-Ping and visionary Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark who wrote the script, produced, co-edited and helped compose the music. Predictably slated by critics, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia nonetheless marks a return to form for Woo Ping as a pleasing throwback to the wild and wacky martial arts fantasies he pioneered with Miracle Fighters (1982). Some sources bill the new film as a remake, something born out by its original Chinese title: Qimen Dunjia - an allusion to an esoteric style of combat combining sorcery, alchemy, I-ching, fengshui and other occult arts. Supposedly used by the First Chinese Emperor Huang Di to subdue the goblin tribe of Chiyou and unite the kingdom. However, neither the plot nor featured characters bear any resemblance to the original Miracle Fighters. What is more Hark refashions the concept into a science fiction story so as not to antagonize mainland Chinese censors with any mention of forbidden supernatural lore.
Typically for Hark The Thousand Faces of Dunjia aims for cosmic scope. Opening with a trippy sequence illustrating the forming of the universe, the film mixes mind-bending visuals with heady philosophy, outrageous action, slapstick silliness and star-crossed romance. Its wild tonal shifts and multiple subplots are most likely what put mainstream critics' noses out of joint. Yet seasoned Asian fantasy film buffs should be accustomed to this schizophrenic approach. As in Hark's seminal Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) the plot involves an innocent blundering into an epic conflict he barely comprehends. Until, guided by compassion and innate decency, he ultimately finds his role in a grander scheme. Speeding from one delirious fantasy set-piece after another, the film benefits from some of the strongest computer graphics featured in a Chinese production. Reminiscent of Japanese kaiju eiga fare the crazy creature designs are certainly more imaginative than those featured in the recent Chinese mega-hit Monster Hunt (2015) which was arguably over-praised.
As well as letting their imaginations run riot, Woo Ping and Hark populate the film with a roster of engaging characters well-played by the likes of likable Aarif Lee and super-sultry Ni Ni. However everyone is eclipsed by young rising star Zhou Dong-You as the childlike, scatterbrained superhero-to-be Xiao Yuan. Romantic complications humanize the characters as poor, long-suffering Dao pitches woo at a conflicted Dragonfly who is smitten with Zhuge who in turn becomes subject of an adolescent crush from Xiao. However, as with a great many wu xia fantasies, the cast of characters continue to expand to the point where viewers will likely have a hard time keeping track of who's who. As its scope grows wider and wider, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia struggles to maintain its delirious juggling act. It does not help that the creators clearly have sequels in mind as the story is all set-up building to a hasty albeit spectacular climax hinting at more adventures to come.
Chinese director whose skill at staging electrifying martial arts has made him one of the most sought after fight choreographers in the world. Woo-ping made his directing debut in 1978 with the Jackie Chan vehicle Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, following it the same year with Chan's hugely popular Drunken Master. His brand of fast-moving martial arts direction was a breath of fresh air compared to the more staid style of many of his peers and until the mid-90s turned in pretty much a film every year, sometimes two or three, including Tiger Cage, Jet Li's Tai-Chi Master and Iron Monkey.