Directed by: Teddy Chan || Produced by: Soi Cheang
Screenplay by: Fendou Liu, Ning Wen || Starring: Henry Lau, Peter Ho, Chenhan Lin, Jiang Luxia, Him Law, Ming Hu
Music by: Peter Kam || Cinematography: Tao Yang || Edited by: Chi-Wai Yau || Country: China || Language: Mandarin
Running Time: 110 minutes
I’ve given Chinese films, mainland Chinese films in particular, a hard rap for a while now. Some of this is a function of contemporary Chinese filmmaking’s heavy-handed nationalism, where their pandering to domestic audiences — and the Chinese Communist Party censors — is so clunky that films like Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) make the overbearing patriotic themes of Hollywood movies like Rambo II (1985), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Tears of the Sun (2003) look mature. Other aspects of big-budget Chinese moviemaking I find unappealing are their similarities to Hollywood blockbusters, in fact — their excessive computer generated imagery (CGI), their bland, unimaginative screenplays, and their general tendency to talk down to their audiences. Put another way, modern Chinese movies seem to have all the weaknesses of high-concept American cinema, but without a strong independent film subculture (e.g. Blumhouse, A24, Black Label Media) and with the added shackles of state censorship. Hong Kong filmmaking (e.g. John Woo, Johnnie To, Peter Chan, Jackie Chan, etc.) used to be a major auteur-exception to the aforementioned bland Chinese film industry, but no longer, I feel (see also Warriors of Future ).
Double World, the latest film from prolific Hong Kong(!) actor, writer, producer, and director Teddy Chan, has some of the charm that Avatar (2009, 2022-) no doubt has with international (re: non-North American) audiences in that its broad fantasy and generic yet capable spectacle may be functional enough to win over cynical, non-domestic viewers like me. Chan’s first wholly mainland Chinese and Mandarin-language production, Double World at first glance possesses many of the same qualities of forgettable Far East ventures like The Mermaid (2016) or The Wandering Earth (2019), but between its high-production values, modest length (110 minutes), and surprisingly grounded action sequences, the film suffices for a quick bite of fantasy-adventure filmmaking; if you’re not a fan of derivative fantasy, however, many of the usual trappings of CGI-laden blockbuster filmmaking, soulless videogame adaptations most of all (see also: World of Warcraft , Sonic the Hedgehog [2020, 2024]), will leave you disinterested given the film’s inconsistent performances, mediocre characterizations, and predictable script.
The directorial execution of Double World, for what the film is, isn’t bad. Chan incorporates his studio soundstages and human cast with the extensive digital composite backgrounds and various CG creature FX well, utilizing decent action choreography that keeps castmembers on the ground and obeying the laws of physics most of the time. As generic as much of the diegesis feels and as derivative as the narrative itself is of other, much more detailed fantasy movies (e.g. The Lord of the Rings [2001-2003], Baahubali [2015, 2017]) — there’s little identifiable style to the art-direction or world-building — the execution of the special FX, costume-design, weaponry, and combat styles are admirable. I never felt swamped by an overload of CGI like I do in many superhero films (e.g. Man of Steel , Age of Ultron ) and appreciated how grounded much of the digital spectacle was.
Outside the FX and action, Double World is less consistent as I hinted above. The pacing and overall structure of the screenplay is fine; the script introduces characters in an orderly fashion, paces the set-pieces so that the overall rhythm of the storytelling flows well, and the entire affair wraps in less than two hours without feeling rushed. So far, so good, right? What kneecaps the movie whenever characters aren’t hack ‘n slashing each other is, well, how dull those characters are; their personalities are almost nonexistent to the point where I struggle to recall any meaningful attributes of the main cast (see also The Phantom Menace ), while their dialogue is so bland I wish writers Fendou Liu and Ning Wen had focused on more visual ways to convey exposition.
The cast’s performances are as much of a mixed bag as the script, unfortunately. Though lead actor Henry Lau is charming enough as our everyman protagonist, he isn’t given much characterization flavor to work with, and his costars Peter Ho, Chenhan Lin, and Jiang Luxia are forgettable blank slates. It’s far simpler to distinguish the castmembers based on what props they used or what costumes they wore than their personality traits, and therefore Double World lacks heart despite how many pretty faces fill its CGI world. Wait a minute, am I describing a Hollywood movie or a “foreign film?”
In the end, my criticisms of Teddy Chan’s latest production are of a different flavor than most mainland Chinese films I’ve reviewed thus far on this site. Other high-concept genre films produced for mainstream Chinese audiences have left me cold and confused, feeling as if I had to be familiar with their specific cultural zeitgeist in order to understand the films themselves. Thanks to Double World’s boilerplate fantasy diegesis, that problem doesn’t exist with this story and I was able to enjoy the craftsmanship of the digital FX, weapon props, and costume, set, and creature-designs of their greater fictional world. Little in this film, direction or screenplay-wise, hasn’t been better executed before, most of all in Hollywood, but compared to the bloated, longwinded, heavy-handed storytelling that makes up the bulk of contemporary blockbuster cinema, I’ll take this as a quasi-palette cleanser. If you’re not much for high fantasy or big-budget CGI FX, there’s not much to recommend here, but most audiences in most parts of the world seem built for this stuff.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Colorful in many ways and without the cheapness of many similar lesser fantasy movies, Double World is perhaps more notable for its absence of negative attributes (e.g. no irritating characters, no cringeworthy comic relief, not bloating itself to 140+ minutes, etc.) than its identifiable positive features. Teddy Chan knows how to keep his characters on the ground and in this dimension, how to use expensive CGI, and has the decency to end his film at a merciful 110 minutes.
— However… anything character-related in Double World is mediocre to bad. Henry Lau does his best as the lead, but the white bread script has no personality, nor do the rest of the cast. Treating a ferocious dragon as something besides a mindless monster is what passes for creative screenwriting, here.
—> ON THE FENCE; go see it on Netflix, or don’t. I don’t care!
? That sure was nice of them to return that dragon’s egg, don’t you think?
Pingback: ‘Das Boot’ (1981): Survival at 280 Meters Below | Express Elevator to Hell - March 15, 2023