In the myth-rich troves of China folklore, there are likely a million entities written about to bless, curse, scare or just remind us what it means to be human. At this intersection of the godly, demonic and human natures, storytellers have been seeking to investigate ethics and morals, while offering up philosophical revelations.
They are like the fables of the A Thousand and One Nights, Hans Christian Anderson, or the Brothers Grimm – stories show up our humanity, but are often coloured by fantastical elements.
For Soul Snatcher, the protagonist is a fox spirit named Bai Shisan (Li Xian) – a rascally if good-natured demon who is hoping to attain immortality. His mission? To obtain a soul bead from his assigned victim. And if that bead happens to be the rare white kind that appears only once every 800 years, then he catapults himself into the ranks of the most powerful of his kind – a nine-tailed white fox.
Gullible and naive, his subject is the goofy scholar Wang Zijin (Chen Li-nung), and given his pliable nature, seems to be easy bait. If it were any other fox spirit candidate, the poor Zijin would have been hoodwinked within a day (they are masterful tricksters, you see) and we would have a movie lasting only 30 minutes long. But because Shisan is just as kind-hearted, he struggles to find a way to extract the bead without destroying his growing friendship with his target.
Luckily for us, directors Song Haolin and Yi Liqi pepper the film with an unctuous amount of scenic visuals. Misty mountains, haunted study halls, even a whimsical brothel with a lotus spirit, the settings here are drenched with lavish CGI and gorgeous art direction. Even simple scenes of the two floating on a boat while on their way to the imperial examination town is painfully picturesque. But therein is part of the problem.
Soul Snatcher is soaked in its purpose to astound with its visuals, a common application in commercial titles coming out from China in the last few years. And while by itself, that is a plus, the heightened state actually turns on itself, hitting a plateau halfway through the film. Yes it’s pretty, but we saw that already.
And this preoccupation on the visuals has affected the story somewhat. Because the two don’t actually seem to be on a real journey, but moving through a script designed to make them step into the next big special effects showcase.
Even if the bright-eyed Li does manage to charm with his impish expressions, his co-stars fail to provide any chemistry with their flat characters. Especially for Chen, his Zijin is simple to the point of being unlikeable, alternating between wailing or being petulant for most parts. A pity, because when that rare scene comes and he actually speaks beyond a few lines and goes into a monologue, he finally begins to resemble what he was meant to represent – a human.
Soul Snatcher is beautiful no doubt, and even dips its toes a little into the BL (boys’ love) territory (“my second wish is for you to get better,” Zijin said to Shisan on their boat), currently trending in global entertainment, but this tale of sacrifice and friendship needs more emotional currency with better story development to make that happen.
A mythic fantasy that pours on the visuals but loses out on plot.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com