In 1979 humble archaeological dig worker Hu Bayi (Mark Chao) volunteers for an expedition deep into the Kunlun mountains led by Professor Yang (Wang Qingixang). Largely because he is smitten with the scholar's kind and beautiful daughter Yang Ping (Yao Chen). A perilous journey sees them menaced by an array of mysterious, malevolent giant monsters before reaching an underground temple where tragedy awaits. Only Hu Bayi makes it home alive. Three years later, on leaving the army a still-traumatized Bayi joins his Fifties-rockabilly-quiffed friend Kaixuan (Daniel Feng) studying at an institute guided by the enigmatic Wang (Li Chen). Meanwhile government scientists are drawn to a series of strange events including an attack by giant monsters on a small desert town and the discovery that the Professor and Yang Ping are still alive. The latter now reborn as a flirty, feral demon-woman with mystical powers who rechristens herself 'Shirley.' Even though Shirley claims to be a different person, Bayi feels compelled to join her and a new team including Kaixun, scientist Chen Dong (Rhydian Vaughan) and cute photographer Cao Weiwei (Tiffany Tang) to find out what is going on.
Much as Hollywood occasionally produces competing blockbusters about alien invasions, killer meteors or Snow White released in the same year, in 2015 the Chinese film industry released two adaptations of Ghost Blows Out the Light: a series of fantasy novels written by Zhang Muye. In this instance for once the local audience had an appetite for both movies as both Mojin - The Lost Legend and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe carved up a serious chunk of the Asian box-office. While the former was a crowd-pleasing, star-laden blockbuster helmed by flamboyant music video graduate Wu Er-Shan, Chronicles... is a quirkier, more contemplative though no less visually spectacular fantasy and an unexpected departure for Lu Chuan: one of China's most acclaimed rising auteurs. Opening with an amusing pastiche of vintage communist propaganda musicals the film has faintly satirical undertones even though its concluding message about sacrifice for the greater good remains staunchly traditional.
Adapted for the screen by Lu Chuan and co-writer Tianxia Bachang with additional input from Bobby Roth (an American television veteran who directed episodes of Lost, Fringe and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and his son Nick Roth (who was instrumental in developing the project) an offbeat story-structure renders the lengthy first act virtually a movie unto itself. Thereafter the protagonists undergo drastic emotional and physical transformations, ably conveyed by likable leads Mark Chao and Yao Chen. While the plot suffers from lack of a clear-cut antagonist and concocts murky motives for an array of under-characterized supporting players, the core romance proves compelling enough and Lu Chuan delivers consistent thrills, chills and suspenseful monster encounters. It is a pleasing throwback to classic Hollywood monster movies only on a much larger scale as the often-stunning scenery adds a truly epic sweep. Yuan pulls off scenes of epic spectacle with panache and verve while the cinematography by Cao Yu proves highly evocative, pinpointing moments of wonder and horror by way of some poetic visuals. Although unveiled with surprisingly little fanfare the scary computer-animated creatures are a menacing, occasionally even awe-inspiring presence. To its credit Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is a lot less flippant about innocent deaths than many recent monster movies as the consequences of each loss hit home for empathetic hero Hu Bayi.
While the midsection gets bogged down with exposition and a preponderance of mystical contrivance in place of solid storytelling, the third act livens things up considerably with the survivors trapped in an abandoned desert town fending off ravenous monsters. Look out for one funny/suspenseful sequence where one character tries to outwit a monster by posing as a mannequin.