Qiao Fei (Jay Chou, sporting a wild mullet) is a kung fu skilled, desert-dwelling treasure hunter who retrieves stolen artefacts for archaeologist Master Tu (Kenneth Tsang). Seeking reconciliation with his estranged daughter, Master Tu invites Lan Ting (Lin Chi-Ling), now an adventure novelist struggling to write her next best-seller, home for dinner, but on the way she is kidnapped by Pork Rib (Eric Tsang) and Master Hua (Chen Dao-Ming). They intend to ransom Lan Ting in exchange for the last copy of the map that points the way to an ancient tomb filled with treasure. But when Qiao Fei arrives to make the exchange, he reveals Tu has been murdered. In the midst of this shock, a feisty little boy (Hao Han) steals the map before a horde of masked tribesmen on horseback charge in to stir trouble for Qiao Fei and company.
After scoring a substantial hit with Kung Fu Dunk (2008), Chu Yen Ping, Taiwan’s reigning king of glossy big-budget junk, swiftly re-teamed pop megastar Jay Chou and comedian-turned-character actor Eric Tsang for this uneven, though intermittently likeable Indiana Jones knock-off. The Treasure Hunter also lifts ideas and imagery from The Mummy (1999), featuring an abundance of spectacular CGI sandstorms, and also Romancing the Stone (1984) from whence it pilfers the kidnap sub-plot, bickering crooks (Tsang seems to be doing a Danny DeVito riff) and pairing of a gruff but amiable action hero with an outwardly prissy but actually gutsy female novelist.
Yet for a supposedly rip-roaring adventure yarn, the film bears an oddly maudlin edge with each character prone to melancholy monologues and bogged down by their own sad little sub-plots. Lan Ting has unresolved issues with her father, not to mention a romantic history with Qiao Fei. Meanwhile our hero was forced to flee his home along with former kid sidekick turned vengeful warrior woman Dao Dao (Miao Pu) after seemingly losing a fight to a mysterious rival (Chen Chu-He), while Master Hua grapples with his own guilty secret as the sole survivor of the last expedition to uncover the hidden treasure. For all the light-heartedness of various action set-pieces, none of these sub-plots end especially happily. Spoiler warning: even the love story does not work out. Attempts to tug at our heartstrings sap some of the energy, but the film’s ace in the hole remains the phenomenal action choreography by veteran filmmaker Ching Siu Tung, of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Some spectacular special effects and terrific stunts figure into the mix, but the plot is unnecessarily cluttered with too many characters jostling for screen time.
Part of the problem is that the plot features no clear-cut antagonists, but instead strings together a selection of surprise encounters that are more puzzling than dramatic. Nevertheless, Jay Chou continues to impress as a charismatic lead and cuts an athletic dash in his action scenes despite extensive and obvious wire-work. Mainland Chinese audiences derided the acting abilities of Taiwanese model Lin Chi-Ling in her last outing, Red Cliff (2008), but she acquits herself well here in a breezier comic role and goes feral with gusto when possessed by a demon in the third act. Although inconsistent, the film is far from dull and goes all out with a finale that throws in cannibalism, poison mushrooms, flying blades and attack by long-haired ghost wizards with some imagery stolen from the climax to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). By the end though viewers will likely wonder why Qiao Fei abandons the beautiful Lan Ting to sulk in the desert and who the hell killed Master Tu?