A Chinese Fairy Tale

Sien Nui Yau Wan
2011 / 100m - Hong Kong
A Chinese Fairy Tale poster

Wilson Yip (Ip Man, Ip Man 2) has been making quite a name for himself these past couple of years, so it's not all that surprising that people have been eying his latest project with heightened interest. With A Chinese Fairy Tale (or A Chinese Ghost Story if you will) Yip takes on a slightly different genre, no doubt alienating a part of his international audience. But fans of the original too should take a word of warning, as Yip's modernization is not for everyone.

screen capture of A Chinese Fairy Tale

It's getting more and more difficult these days to determine whether a remake is just a remake, a reboot, a prequel, a preboot or maybe even a complete re-envisioning of the source material. Whatever the case, Yip's latest finds its roots in Siu-Tung Ching's (Swordsman II) 1987 cult hit A Chinese Ghost Story. While the story is slightly different from the original, the structure and focus of the film remain the same and are lovingly incorporated in this 2011 upgrade.

That said, people hoping to catch some of the classic atmosphere of the Chinese Ghost Story series might end up feeling cheated by Yip's latest. While on paper there are many similarities between the two films, Yip's remake is heavy on CG and effect shots, completely forgoing the old-style effects and charm attributed to them. For me this was not much of a problem, I feel that Yip did a great job upgrading the visual style of the film, but those with an aversion to post-processed CG visuals might reconsider before going into this film.

The story is quite complex, unless you accept that this is just another action/fantasy flick and take all the drama for granted. There's a basic love triangle and a village that needs saving from a tree demon. Once you start drawing lines between characters and events things get more muddled, but as the film itself isn't all that concerned by delivering a proper dramatic foundation, neither should you.

screen capture of A Chinese Fairy Tale

If you can stomach the CG, Yip's A Chinese Fairy Tale is a beautiful film to behold. Apart from all the effect shots the camera work, framing and settings are top notch too, but no matter how you feel about those, in the end they will be overshadowed by the CG in the film. Not everything is technically impressive and a few select shots are not very convincing, but that is all quickly forgotten when the aesthetic value of the images start doing their work. The editing too deserves a little mention, as it is snappy, controlled and impressively paced.

The soundtrack is comprised of the same traditional Chinese music that is ever-present in films like these. While it could be considered as a nod to the original and it does result in creating a proper atmosphere, it is far from adventurous and mostly functions as background filler. A few days later I can recall very little from the music and listening to the songs featured in the trailer, they could just as well come from one of ten other films in this genre.

The acting is sufficient, though Yifei Liu clearly lacks the charisma to fully carry her role. Luckily actors like Siu-Wong Fan and Louis Koo take the spotlight away from her when they enter the frame. The lead role is reserved for Shao-qun Yu, who does a great job resurrecting one of the gullible young characters of the old days. He aptly succeeds in finding the perfect balance between slightly overacting classic characters and what is considered acceptable in modern-day films.

screen capture of A Chinese Fairy Tale

In a surprisingly smart move the film was retitled A Chinese Fairy Tale. Even though the original might still classify as a horror film, times have changed and the notion of some demons and an evil tree are not good enough to satisfy horror audiences. In the end, Yip's film is a martial arts fantasy epic with some darker touches here and there, where horror fans can find very little to get excited about.

There isn't too much martial arts action, but there are a few scenes where Yip can demonstrate what he's learned this past 10 years. This time around he's not quite that restrained by reality though, which results in some smartly choreographed martial arts wizardry and some impressive fantasy bashing.

If you take away the layer of CG, the film underneath is as close to the original as you can get nowadays. A simple narrative with complex relations between characters, snappy editing, blue-filter night scenes, and epic finale, a gullible young hero, some fantasy martial arts and a lot of people floating around ... it's all there and it should definitely appeal to the fans of the original. The CG transports the film to our modern times though and considering its domination it kills off a considerable amount of the melancholic atmosphere. Whether this is enough to kill the entire film for you depends on your acceptance of this decision. I for one didn't mind, I loved the CG and was considerably impressed by the visual expression of Yip's latest, but I realize that opinions may differ. If you think you can handle an update of A Chinese Ghost Story bathing in CG visuals, this one is definitely recommended, otherwise you best stay clear.