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 I was never a part of. Prior to this movie, I had not even heard of them.
In the end, I guess it’s because the trailer exuded a strong Japanese Anime road trip flavour. The story was also markedly Liao Zhai in storytelling style. I’ve been a fan of this macabre Chinese masterpiece since young.
Yeah, I looked forward to this for weeks. And it turned out to be a mixed bag.
For thumbs-up, 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 too enthusiastic with CGI, but nonetheless visual candy for viewers into oriental settings.
On the flip side, the acting was seriously 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. Worse, most of their comedic one-liners are off, either the result of mistiming or awkward context. The latter is often a case of lame reference to Chinese adages or folk culture, some of which are obscure to even a pure Chinese like me.
These weaknesses, in turn, compromise the ambitious story, which then ends on a complex note involving karma. To put it in another way, lack of the above-mentioned camaraderie, it was just very hard to empathize with the dramatic developments. Let alone understand whatever underlying philosophical message there is.
Furthermore, and I’m not nit-picking here, the concluding morality message was 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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