Soul Snatcher (赤狐书生) is glitzy and full of eye-catching CGI, but the visual magic doesn’t compensate for bumbling acting and story.
Soul Snatcher (赤狐书生) Synopsis
As the final trial to qualify for ascension, fox spirit Bai Shi San is to retrieve a soul pearl from human Wang Zi Jin, a process that’d kill Wang. During his attempts to con Wang, though, Bai develops an unlikely friendship with the naïve scholar. The subsequent involvement of other spirits, including Bai’s teacher, further worsens Bai’s moral dilemma.
I greatly looked forward to this glitzy 2020 Chinese fantasy movie since learning about it in October.
Oh, it’s not because I’m particularly fond of fox spirits. As someone who grew up on a diet of classic Chinese myths, how could I be? Neither was it because I’m a fan of the two boyish leads i.e. Chen Li-nung and Li Xian. To be quite honest, they appeal to a demographic group that I was never a part of. Prior to this movie, I’ve not even heard of them.
In the end, I guess it’s because the trailer exuded a strong Japanese Anime roadtrip feel ambience. The story was also markedly Liao Zhai in flavour. I’ve been a fan of this macabre Chinese masterpiece since young.
Well, it ended up a mixed bag.
On the positive side, the magical fights were eye-catching as expected, though I can’t say the conceptualizations were completely original. (For example, the examination room battle was quite similar to some scenes in Wu Xin: The Monster Killer 3) The classically Chinese backdrops were also elegant throughout. In some segments, a shade over-enthusiastic in CGI, but nonetheless visual candy for viewers into oriental settings.
On the flipside, acting was really rather lacklustre. Now, Chen and Li do try, but somehow, I just do not sense the sort of camaraderie or brotherhood that’s so crucial to such stories. Most of their comedic one-liners are also off, either the result of mis-timing or awkward context. The latter is often a case of lame reference to Chinese adages or folk culture, references that are bound to be obscure to non-Chinese viewers.
These weaknesses, in turn, compromises the ambitious story, which ends on a complex note involving karma. Simply put, lack of the above-mentioned camaraderie, it’s just very hard to empathize with the dramatic climax.
Furthermore, and I’m not nit-picking here, the concluding morality message was seriously flimsy, to say the least. Rather than food for thought, it felt to be the case of a hasty wrap-up for an overly complicated story. Hate to say it, but there was also indication of some sort of peculiar decision to be gorily mawkish.
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