The fantastical, childish Chinese romance Once Upon a Time is a great example of a campy work that takes things far more seriously than it should. One of two adaptations of the novel Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms to happen in China this year (the other being a well liked, but controversial television series), Once Upon a Time has an intriguingly outlandish, labyrinthine premise and little idea what to do with it all outside of giving viewers a lot of corny sentimentality and gorgeous visuals.
Bai Qian (Liu Yifei) is a 142,738 goddess who has fallen into a bit of a depression. She drinks heavily, hates going outside, and has to shield her eyes whenever she finds herself in brightly lit areas. She has recently woken up from a dream that she can’t remember. With some coaxing, she’s able to attend an undersea birthday party where she meets the “charming” prince Ye Hua (Yang Yang) and his young son. She immediately feels pulled towards him and they begin a romance despite him being only 90,000 years old and still hung up on a mortal wife that died 300 years prior.
The romantic twist contained within Once Upon a Time should be immediately apparent to anyone reading that sentence, but the debut directorial feature of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (co-directing with American visual effects supervisor Anthony LaMolinara) remains either frustratingly vague or overly convoluted in every other respect. The love affair between the prince and goddess is somehow tied to a clan of demons that want to see Bai Qian ruined, but what either side hopes to gain from their battles against one another is anyone’s guess. Most of the time, outside of the obvious focus on the love story between the two leads, I was hopelessly lost and not interested enough to devote more energy to find out what was happening. It doesn’t help matters any further that both of the main characters are categorically unlikable, with Ye Hua coming off as lecherous, pushy, and not in the least bit romantic and Bai Qian always acting aloof and confused when she should be strong and capable. Liu Yifei does what she can, and while the film’s second half does give her slightly more to work with, there’s still not much to emotionally latch onto.
Technically speaking, the film is a bit more accomplished. The production design is gorgeous and the fight scenes boast some credible wire work and choreography. One can easily see why Xiaoding (an Oscar nominee and frequent collaborator with Zhang Yimou) and LaMolinara (Toy Story, Spider-Man 2) would see Once Upon a Time as a chance to play to each other’s strengths. Blossoms poetically rain down from treetops, every doom filled precipice looks appropriately spooky, the landscapes are detailed, multilayered, and always covered in something, and battle sequences that take place among immortals within fantastic realms means that they can do whatever they want because there are no rules or logic behind them. That’s all well and good, but neither seems to have stopped to think about giving their story any sort of momentum or emotional heft. Credit where due, however: a large scale battle sequence where the heroes attempt to fell a giant monster made or earth and plant roots is a lot of fun even if it feels emotionally divorced from everything else going on.
All attempts at pathos feel silly, forced, and tacked on because the story can’t survive on dazzling, colourful visuals alone. The more serious and dangerous the romance at the heart of the story becomes, the less inviting it gets, devolving into self-seriousness that a film also featuring a talking, anthropomorphized animated vegetable shouldn’t contain. Once Upon a Time should be light, airy, and smart. Instead, it’s convoluted, sappy, and not particularly likable.
Once Upon a Time opens at select theatres in Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver on Friday, August 11, 2017.
Check out the trailer for Once Upon a Time: