Supernatural costume fantasy Mural possesses an overstuffed story, laggy pacing and poor visual effects. Gordon Chan (of Painted Skin and, uh, Mr. Three Minutes) directed this Ancient-China era story set in a beguiling supernatural world, but seems uncertain if heís creating a light fable or something darker. The result isnít exemplary but there's light shining through the film's numerous superficial cracks.
The story concerns principled scholar Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao), who becomes enchanted by a mural in a Taoist temple depicting many beautiful women. One of the women, the innocent Mudan (Zheng Shuang), suddenly appears in the temple only to quickly flee through a mysterious tunnel behind the temple altar. Xiaolian follows and discovers a magnificent palace filled with beautiful young maidens sporting colorful, ethereal gowns and superbly coifed hairdos. Xiaolian has found the Land of Ten Thousand Blossoms and it's obviously paradise.
Unfortunately, men are persona non grata around here. For reasons as yet unknown, the Queen (Yan Ni) forbids the presence of men, and demonstrates such by killing a male stone demon who's visiting his love Yunmei (Ada Liu). Lest Xiaolian become the second dead guy in less than a day, he's quickly hidden by Mudan, with an assist from her friend Cuizhu (Xie Nan) and also the Queen's mysteriously reserved right hand Shaoyao (Betty Sun).
The girls help Xiaolian escape back to the Taoist temple, but Xiaolian surmises that there may be more to the muralís world than just a matriarchy. Why are men not allowed? What will happen to Mudan once the Queen discovers that she helped Xiaolian? Who is the Queen? And is her paradise supposed to be Heaven? Or is it really Hell? Xiaolian returns to the Land of Ten Thousand Blossoms, dragging along his dopey valet Hou Xia (Baobeier) and also bandit Meng Longtan (Collin Chou), and along the way he and his compatriots discover the truth of what lies in the painting.
Mural offers an intriguing fantasy tale that flirts with both the sensual and the horrific. The premise and the developing mystery behind Mural immediately intrigue, as there are hints Ė the Queen's winged enforcer (Andy On) and the maidens' hushed fear, among them Ė that what's going on may be more sinister than one realizes. As the Queen, Yan Ni also offers hints of a dark side, chewing scenery grandly as she lords over her subjects. Besides the ongoing mystery, there's sexual tension. Mudan immediately loves Xiaolian, but the stern Shaoyao may have some claim on his heart.
The film also has comic moments, particularly from Eric Tsang as a knowing Taoist Monk, and also Collin Chou and Baobeier as Deng Chaoís sidekicks. Serving as the story's anchor are Deng Chao and Sun Li, a real-life couple who handle the film's central romance with a fine mixture of sidelong glances and pensive silences. On performance and potential, Mural is worthwhile, and seems like a decent second attempt (after Painted Skin) by Gordon Chan to resurrect former Hong Kong Cinema tropes.
Here's where the problems arrive. While tantalizing with something more complex, Mural only serves up simple ideas. Any danger or wickedness hinted at is ultimately rendered moot, as there are rather prosaic reasons why this all occurs. The outcome of all these mysteries is perfectly legitimate as a story, but it wastes a lot of the potential. There's a detour to a fiery cavern that might be Hell, but the lousy CGI demons and large CGI turtle (complete with big, super-cute eyes) seem more appropriate for a kidís film.
These fake moments make Mural even more bland than it initially seems, and the film ultimately fails to engage in a cinematic matter. Indeed, much of Mural resembles a stage play, from the grand but obviously fake facades to the effective but rampant monologues, drawn-out running time (Over 2 hours!) and confined action and drama. Had this been a play or musical, the dialogue-heavy revelations, elaborate stage directions, inordinate but entertaining attention to side characters and even the somewhat confusing ending might have made it worth recommending.
As such, the film is still worthwhile, but only if one reduces their hopes of something like the energetic and baroque late eighties or early nineties Hong Kong Cinema the film seemingly resembles. Actually, the filmís influences stretch father back to the Shaw Brothers-era costume dramas or Huangmei operas, with everything set-bound, confined and dependent on audience attention to dialogue and physical performance.
Mural is ultimately a judgement call for audiences, as the filmís iconography now speaks for other genres and expectations, e.g. something crazier, more showy or delirious than the rather mannered and grounded fantasy that remains. Well, now that you know what Mural is sort of like, you can make your own decision about if you should see it. Personally, I enjoyed it even though I was totally expecting something else. (Kozo, 2011)