On his way to the capital to sit for the imperial examination, straight-laced scholar Zhu Xiaolan (Deng Chao), his manservant Hou Xia (Bao Bei-Er) and a thieving bandit named Meng Longtan (Collin Chou) take shelter at an ancient temple run by an enigmatic monk (Eric Tsang). Xiaolan grows fascinated with a lavish mural depicting a fantastical fairy realm. Suddenly, an alluring fairy maiden named Mudan (Zheng Shuang) emerges from the mural and draws Xiaolan inside the artwork into a fantasy land populated entirely by beautiful women, led by stern but lovely Shaoyao (Betty Sun Li) who serves the tyrannical Queen (Yan Ni). For reasons of her own, the Queen forbids any man from trespassing in her kingdom and wooing her faithful fairies. Fearing for the handsome scholar’s life, Shaoyao allows Mudan and her friends to help Xiaolan escape back to the human world. However, Xiaolan worries the evil Queen will punish his newfound fairy friends for their treachery. He persuades the monk to send him back into the mural, this time accompanied by Hou Xia and Meng Longtan. They arrive to find Mudan has mysteriously disappeared, while the Queen proves strangely hospitable and makes them an offer they can’t refuse...
Gordan Chan’s follow-up to his hit remake of the classic ghost story Painted Skin (2008) pairs returning leading lady Betty Sun Li opposite her real-life husband Deng Chao. Storywise, it is uncertain whether Mural is based on an actual Chinese legend like so many of its brethren, but it comes over like a cross between the pulp adventure of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1935) and the philosophical inclinations of Lost Horizon (1937). It suffers some of the same languid plotting problems as Painted Skin. Back in the heyday of the Hong Kong New Wave, this would have been paced like a runaway freight train, but latterly the influence of more stately mainland fantasies such as Hero (2003) has left that kind of filmmaking out of style.
On closer inspection however, Mural is a throwback to the more elegant lyricism of Huangmei Opera fantasies from the Fifties and Sixties, specifically those by venerated Shaw Brothers auteur Li Han-hsiang, and transcends some occasionally obtuse plotting to emerge a powerful, poetic political allegory. Scholar Xiaolan is torn between pursuing a chance to better his nation or a life of seemingly self-indulgent, romantic bliss. The ultimate direction taken by the plot makes for a nice thematic contrast with the recent remake of A Chinese Ghost Story (2011). Whereas that film unequivocally argues romance is a distraction from civic duty, here love literally brings down a dictatorship and the most powerful image is of dozens upon dozens of oppressed women uniting their strength against tyranny.
The compelling plot is by turns suspenseful and romantic though overly tangled given it doesn’t settle for one love triangle but several love quadrangles! Lucky old Xiaolan is “forced” to marry the fetching Cuizhou (Tse Nam), who falls for him even though it is all a sham so he can rescue Mudan, who is madly in love with the scholar even though his heart belongs to Shaoyao, who hides her feelings and is unaware she has an admirer in the kingdom’s lone male warrior (Andy On). Got all that? Meanwhile, macho Meng - who throws his weight around making sexist remarks till he learns the error of his ways - cruelly spurns winsome fairy Yunmei (Liu Yan) after their wedding night then forms a harem of her more sexually-skilled friends Dingxiang (Mo Xiao-Qi), Baihe (Bao Wen-Jing) and Xuelian (Xia Yi-Yao). In a sweet-natured subplot, kindly Hou Xia takes on the spurned Yunmei, promising he will help her find a husband in the human world though she eventually falls for the decent, brave servant.
Exquisitely designed right down to the eye-popping animated credits, the extravagant special effects include a rampaging man made of molten rock, a golden owl transforming into a warrior, and spellbinding fantasy battles between nightmarish blue-skinned winged demons and fairies blasting rainbow-hued superpowers, although a giant prehistoric turtle proves more eye-catching than convincing. One should remember that realism is less a priority for Asian cinemagoers than in those in the west. Chan also stages some lavish Bollywood style dance numbers allowing his stars to swish around in their sumptuous costumes and elegantly coiffed hairdos.
Although the versatile Betty Sun Li provides the star turn, newcomer Zheng Shuang is also affecting as lovelorn Mudan and there are strong performances from everyone in the fine ensemble cast. Much like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Mural can’t quite settle on a definitive ending but in spite of that makes an undeniably powerful social statement about the need for political reform. Music by Ikuro Fujiwara with Deng Chao and Betty Sun Li performing the theme song which, for a period piece, is surprisingly heavy on rock guitar.