Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe [Jiu ceng yao ta] (2015)

I suspect that science fiction is a Western conceit.

Certainly, when one looks at Asian film, it is rare to find a film that neatly fits into our usual categories of SF.  In fact, in Japan, giant monsters and superpowered Ultraman-type heroes  (and other such effects-heavy efforts) have their own genre, tokusatsu.  While here in the West, we think of those as kid’s shows, there is a tokusatsu series by the Japanese master of SF insanity, Keita Amemiya,  which actually includes topless scenes – and for all I know, it may not be the only one.

Certainly there is a strong tendency in Asian SF to mix in elements normally kept separate here, such as fantasy, the supernatural, and surrealism.  And that certainly seems to be the case here, as anyone who had seen only the trailers for Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe would unhesitatingly file it under “fantasy”, thanks to all the marvelous creatures, the underground temple, superpowered beings, streams of glowing power and the glimpses of ghostly figures.

And yet we are instead told that the “Ghostly Tribe” were a race of aliens who conquered the earth but were defeated.  Their descendants intermarried with us and now resemble us.  And, of course, their advanced technology is responsible for the creatures that awaken once the Red Pagoda is almost unsealed.

In fact, other than a ghostly image of one of the aliens, there is very little here that looks like SF (and even she could just as easily be an elf or sprite).  I have to admit to a certain curiosity as to whether the “alien” subtext got added in translation.  Of course, another reading might be that it is reaching for a Lovecraftian unspeakable secrets sort of vibe.  And despite references to advanced technology and what amount to superpowers, we never do get an explanation of how the guardians of the Prince’s tomb have lingered in ghostly form.

Perhaps because it looks cool.

What makes this even more eccentric is that it is one of two competing adaptations of Tianxia Bachang’s 2006 best-selling novel Ghost Blows Out the Light which came out within a few months of each other.  The other film, Mojin: The Lost Legend, doesn’t seem to have much to do with this, other than sharing the same character names (who otherwise have little in common) and a similar ancient tomb setting.  It would appear to be taken from later parts of the story and be more of a fantasy.  One reviewer claims that there is not one book but a series of novels and that the rival adaptators each have rights to four different books in the series.

Very strange.

Another odd element is the very first scene with its glowingly happy propaganda images of the happy life in the Red Army under Mao.  That these are followed moments later with a less romantic reality seems to question that past without really having the nerve to reject it completely.  Later, the same happy song shows up in a fantasy sequence, as the hero remembers his fallen comrades, which certainly muddies the issue thoroughly.  But that’s normal in films made under Communism.

It is directed by auteur and art film darling, Lu Chan, whose last film was so arty that it failed to find an audience.  Making an effects extravaganza seems an odd choice as a follow up, but on the whole he manages to make an interesting popcorn film, with the opening cave exploration sequence particularly impressive.  However, its direction seems fairly straightforward and there really aren’t any noticeable arty flourishes.

And, as we expect from this sort of Asian film, it ends on a rather bittersweet note.  This seems to be the set-up for a sequel.

But not a connection to Mojin.

I enjoyed this one and found it far less disjointed than many of the critics – I suspect that might reflect the fact that it is subtitled and spends a lot of time on exposition about the past.  And we all know that our experience of a subtitled film does depend on how alert we are and how well we can follow the titles.

It doesn’t ever manage to escape the confines of the big summer blockbuster, but it is far more interesting than most of its Western counterparts and it even manages to work in an Elvis impersonator.  And it’s miles better than anything SyFy is showing.

That alone makes it worth a DVD rental.  If you can find it.

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