After watching Yan Han's Animal World a couple of weeks ago, I was hoping to catch up with some his older work. First on the list was Dream Breaker [Po Meng You Xi] and that turned out to be quite a success. It's not often that China does urban fantasy mixed with sci-fi, but I'm not at all surprised it's Yan Han pulling the strings here. While the rest of China is slowly settling down into more predictable niches and genres, Han seems to be exploring the boundaries of said genres, looking for new ways to challenge his viewers.
It can be tough working in a genre that is mostly ignored by the local market, so it's not too surprising that Han reached out to neighbouring countries for a little extra support. Animal World was an adaptation of a Japanese manga, Dream Breaker in its turn was produced by none other than Sion Sono (IMDb lists him as a "visual consultant"). Digging further into credits, you'll also find a Japanese costume designer on the payroll. Maybe not the most captivating and influential of credits, but when doing a fantasy/sci-fi blend these things matter, as proper world building is a big part of the appeal of a film like this.
It's not that China doesn't like fantasy, on the contrary, it's just that they don't seem to care much about contemporary or even futuristic variants. Chinese fantasy is usually grounded in a historic setting or in a modern setting where historic elements are brought back from the past. But with China being one of the leading countries in tech and science, it was only a matter of time before people starting craving more sci-if oriented entertainment. Dream Breaker probably won't be a big turning point as Yan Han takes a few too many steps in one go, but it's a clear sign that things are changing.
The story revolves around a girl whose dad died in mysterious circumstances when she was still a kid. After a short but unsettling VR demonstration at school, she finds herself in a world that isn't quite like the one she was used to. Somehow she tumbled into a computer game, though getting out won't be that easy. She entered the game illegally and illegal aliens dying in the game also end up dead in real life, so the stakes are high. Luckily she runs into a band of mercenaries that is facing similar problems, even so the road to freedom is long and treacherous.
Visually Dream Breaker offers a nice blend of Japanese and Chinese aesthetics. Most characters (especially Zhora, an in-game assassin) look like they stepped right out of a manga and the futuristic cityscapes are more Ghost in the Shell than they are Blade Runner, giving off a very Japanese vibe. On the other hand the camera work and editing are much closer to modern Chinese genre cinema, going for a slicker and more polished effect. There's a little flakey CG left and right, but overall Han succeeds in delivering a stylish, colorful and imaginative vision of the future.
Sadly the score isn't up to par. It's a recurring complaint with Chinese film, which means it might in fact be something cultural, but rarely does a Chinese score add something substantial to a film. They mastered the skill of producing inconspicuous and functional music that does what it's supposed to do, but there are only a handful films where I remember much of it afterwards. It's a void that needs to be filled at some time, but for now I guess we'll just have to do with decent but forgettable soundtracks. Dream Breaker is no exception.
The acting is pretty decent, but without any stand-out performances. It's a very young cast and while Duling Chen and Yuexi Gai do a decent job, they don't really add much to their characters beyond their flashy looks. To be fair, it's not like the film offers them a lot to work with and a film like Dream Breaker doesn't really need actors to carry the weight of the film, but a more seasoned cast might have given the characters a bit more dramatic impact without wasting valuable time on character exposition.
While this kind of urban fantasy is quite novel for Chinese cinema, others have been doing it for much longer of course. Thematically speaking the film doesn't really cover that much new ground, with people trapped inside and trying to escape a VR game, but in combination with the Chinese/Japanese aesthetics it still manages to feel quite novel. If you only care about plot and narrative you may find the ideas here a little tried and tested, if on the other hand you love visual world building there is plenty to admire in Dream Breaker.
Yan Han is doing very well lately, quickly becoming one of the front-runners of modern Chinese cinema. Dream Breaker is a film that fits him like a glove. With a little help from his Japanese pals Han created a sprawling and aesthetically pleasing futuristic world with enough visual prowess to catapult you seamlessly through its 100 minute running time. There is definitely some room for improvement left, but Han is still young and based on the films I've seen so far he is headstrong enough to grow beyond his current capabilities in the coming years.