Film Review: Once Upon a TimeLavish is the word here, and lavish is all you really need to know.
It should come as no big surprise that Once Upon a Time demanded the services of two directors: Zhao Xiaoding, who photographed House of Flying Daggers, and special-effects wiz Anthony LaMolinara of Spider-Man 2, as well as four screenwriters. This beyond-sumptuous Chinese fairytale was conceived and executed on a monumental scale to make such past expensive behemoths like Intolerance, Gone with the Wind, Cleopatra or the entire Star Wars franchise look positively threadbare, such is the nature of the imaginations at work here, not to mention the power of China’s present-day economy which of course stretches into the entertainment world.
Opulent palace scenes of gorgeously caparisoned royals partying and having jealous hissy fits, monumental battle scenes, jaw-dropping supernatural effects like both human and godlike characters morphing into the most phantasmagorical beasts on land or sea, immense scary dragons, an underwater city, lyrical fields and fields of multi-hued floral delight for romantic protagonists to dash through, plus interaction with antic animated creatures—they’re all present and accounted for, sometimes in double or even multiple dosages over the course of the movie’s 108-minute running time.
In the face of such generous largesse—like one huge, festive cinematicfete for the audience—it would almost seem churlish to express any cavils over a too-ornate screenplay, so overfilled with people and plot coincidences, endless flashbacks and conflict over not just generations but centuries that it’s hard to tell one character from another or remember what connection they share or what they’re forever fighting about. As it is, the plot has actually been simplified, for it’s based on the Chinese novel Three Lives, Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, which a previous TV adaptation took a staggering 58 episodes to tell.
It really doesn’t matter, though, for if you cannot just enjoy taking in all these Eastern “Game of Thrones” shenanigans (with way less misogyny and not so gory violence) and all its costly but beautifully designed wonderment, you very well may be suffering from a particularly virulent strain of anhedonia—i.e., coming strictly from the no-fun zone.
The cast, which very well may be the most physically beautiful ever assembled (well, at least since Tequila Sunrise or Rocco and His Brothers), is another undeniable asset, for not only are they all screamingly ravishing, these girls and boys can act. Liu Yifei, who plays central heroine Bai Qian, a 140,000-year-old goddess with transformative powers, has a terrific, empowering strength to her and some serious high-flying martial-arts skill, as well as an amusingly haughty comic flair. She has great need of this last quality, as her supremely fetching assigned beloved, Prince Ye Hua (the equally athletic, preternaturally handsome Yang Yang), who is only 70,000 years her junior, is mainly besotted by her only because, to him, she completely resembles a tragically lost love, to bring an extra Vertigo element into the already overly teeming, steaming mix. Factor in additional hordes of seductive yet highly volatile villainesses, hunky high-kicking male courtiers and the most adorable little girl of royal spawn and you simply have the unquestioned eye-candy feast of 2017.
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