Oh boy. It’s another Hong Kong movie where CGI isn’t just the order of the day, it’s the order, the menu, and the restaurant! In short, Jeffrey Lau’s “A Chinese Tall Story” is a combination muddled storytelling, needlessly convoluted plotting, oftentimes inspired set design, and so much CGI overkill that you will swear you were playing one of those Final Fantasy videogames and not watching a movie. “Tall Story” has a lot in common with Tsui Hark’s 2001 film “The Legend of Zu”, another movie so devoid of point that its pointlessness became the point. The only thing missing from “Tall Story” is Cecilia Cheung to dull the pain. Instead, we get an “uglied” Charlene Choi.
“A Chinese Tall Story” is supposedly based on the classic “Journey to the West” story, and follows monk Tripitaka (the ever effeminate Nicholas Tse) as he runs afoul of a CGI tree demon that wishes to eat his soul in order to attain immortality. Or at least that’s what the Tree Demon says, as he shows up for a brief bit in the beginning, again a few minutes later, and then doesn’t bother to appear again until almost an hour later. At the initial battle between CGI Tree Demon and Tripitaka’s troika of apprentices, led by the stout Sun Wukong (Wilson Chen), Tripitaka ends up tied to Wukong’s magical Golden Staff and tossed a great distance out of harm’s way. This leaves the apprentices to be captured, a situation Tripitaka, who doesn’t actually know how to fight, is determined to rectify.
But before Tripitaka can ride to the rescue, he must first shake off the unshakeable lust of ugly-as-sin Meiyan (Charlene Choi), whose people located the tied-to-a-Golden Staff Tripitaka. Hijinks ensue as Tripitaka and Meiyan uses the Golden Staff, which can turn into just about anything, including a giant mecha with mini-guns (think “Matrix: Revolutions”), to time travel, visit the cosmos, the Heavens, and all that other good stuff. Along the way, a space princess (the lovely Bingbing Fan) hiding in a floating cocoon of sorts show up, along with her giant fleet of spaceships and an army of laser rifle carrying Ultraman-like soldiers. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
If “A Chinese Tall Story” was determined to out-CGI, out-weird, and generally out-everything the other big-budget, CGI-laden Chinese movie of 2005, namely Chen Kaige’s “The Promise”, then it succeeded. Quality-wise? Not so much. The two films share two things: star Nicholas Tse and lots of CGI. I mean, more CGI than in “Avenging Fist”. Even more than in all three “Matrix” movies combined. We’re talking a lot of CGI here, the quality of which ranges from cheesy, to silly, to cheesy and silly, to “Oh my God are they serious?” Which is a shame, because when Lau elects to maximize the physical set designs, the film looks gorgeous. And unlike other green screen heavy films like “Sin City”, there’s no attempt with “Tall Story” to make the effects seamless. Or at least, if they tried, they never came close to succeeding.
The first hour and change of “A Chinese Tall Story” is all goofy hijinks and jokes, as Tripitaka and Meiyan eventually find themselves in the company of super-powered villagers determined to teach Tripitaka the ways of fighting so that he may, finally, make that whole rescue-his-disciples thing happen already. No, really, the film tends to forget its many storylines in lieu of the here and now. Sun Wukong and the other two captured disciples show up in the beginning, and then disappear completely until over an hour later. Same for the Tree Demon and the Space Princess. To see a traditional, coherent narrative in “Tall Story” is to ask for the impossible.
To no one’s surprise, “A Chinese Tall Story” eventually finds itself indulging in its inevitable Public Bathroom Abortion scene (see “Sex is Zero” for the reference). This is when, almost always towards the end of the movie, the filmmakers decide they’ve had enough of comedy and now wants to move into heavy Melodrama so that they can “affect” the audience. In “Tall Story”, we get Meiyan, now beautified, being tied to a rock with barbed wires and covered in blood. Tripitaka also gets his legs broken during a bloody fight. No, really. Western audiences will be shock by the sudden tonal shift, but Eastern audiences will be wondering why it took the Public Bathroom Abortion scene so long to show up.
In the end, “A Chinese Tall Story” is innocuous enough that, if approached in the right frame of mind, its trespasses and excesses are easy to excuse. The film’s humor is of the hit and miss variety, and no doubt native Chinese speakers will get more out of the film’s verbal gags than the rest of us. Shave 20 minutes off, including the pointless Public Bathroom Abortion scene tagged on at the end, and there’s a recommendation here somewhere. Nevertheless, I’m hardpressed to say with any conviction if sitting through an hour and 40 minutes of “A Chinese Tall Story” is worth a couple of chuckles here and there.
Jeffrey Lau (director) / Jeffrey Lau (screenplay)
CAST: Nicholas Tse …. Tripitaka
Steven Cheung …. Sandy
Charlene Choi …. Meiyan
Wilson Chen …. Sun Wukong
Bingbing Fan ….
Kara Hui …. Meiyan’s Mother
Kenny Kwan …. Piggy
Isabella Leung …. The Red Child