Codirectors Zhao Xiaoding and Anthony LaMolinara team up to adapt a sprawling fantasy novel by Tang Qi.
An epic hybrid of storybook fable and good-versus-evil supernatural fantasy, Once Upon a Time would give prospective viewers a better hint at its convoluted nature if it wore the title of the Chinese novel on which it is based: Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms. Confused identities and scrambled romance make plot summaries impossible, and even describing the picture’s quicksilver mood changes might test a reader’s patience. Suffice to say that in the States, the film’s only likely audience consists of native Mandarin speakers with kids to entertain — but even that demographic isn’t sure to attend: As unlikely as it may seem, this lavish feature arrives in the same year as a Chinese television version, in which a different cast and crew tell the story in 58 episodes of 45 minutes each. Reportedly, that retelling has been a huge hit online with viewers outside China.
The two first-time feature directors behind this version come with visual backgrounds: Anthony LaMolinara has worked in visual effects and animation for some major Hollywood productions; the more accomplished Zhao Xiaoding has served as cinematographer on multiple Zhang Yimou films and other high-profile imports. The two show no interest in restraint here: Landscapes glow with jewel tones that would make Thomas Kinkade queasy; their fondness for greenscreen fantasy realms might make George Lucas wonder what he hath wrought.
Less attention is paid to niceties like segues in tone. The action begins in child’s-storybook mode, with an immortal empress (Liu Yifei) frolicking in bucolic settings accompanied by a cutesy sidekick who looks like Baby Groot reborn as a Brussels sprout. Then she crosses paths with the crown prince of the Nine Heavens (Yang Yang), and gears shift into a romantic farce of mistaken identities.
And maybe she is. Each of our leads has doppelgangers or previous reincarnations to contend with, super-powered figures whose backstories tie them up in age-old conflict between the Nine Heavens and the Demon Tribe. At first, the arrival of a queen resembling Snow White’s evil stepmother suggests that Once Upon will embrace its Disneylike aspects; soon, though, Peter Jackson-grade worldmaking becomes the goal, and our two split-personality lovers are wrapped up in serious, often confusing pathos.
Sadly, the ambitious film never approaches the gravitas that helped the Lord of the Rings films involve us in their mythology. While the long, twisty pic never lacks for novelty — even in the final scenes, it has an army of CGI hummingbirds in its back pocket, just waiting to vanquish a more beastly crowd from the skies — it gives newcomers to this material very little reason to care what we’re seeing. Fans of the novel, which is said to have sold well Stateside, might want to scour the web for all-region dvds of the TV version instead, which goes by the name Eternal Love.
Production company: Alibaba Pictures Group
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Liu Yifei, Yang Yang, Yikuan Yan, Jin Luo, Chun Li
Directors: Zhao Xiaoding, Anthony LaMolinara
Screenwriter: Tang Qi
Producers: Sa Zhilei, Wang Yanan
Executive producers: Li Li, Runshen Chen, Peter Zheng, Kenny Chau, Sunny Chen
Director of photography: Xiaoding Zhao