Half-mortal, half-monster Qing Ming (Chen Kun) serves with the Yin Yang Bureau, humanity's first line of defense against demonic threats from the Netherworld. That is until he is framed for killing his best friend and fellow Yin Yang Master, Ci Mu (William Chan) in an attempt to steal the powerful Scale Stone. Seven years later dogged Imperial guardsmen Yuan Boya (Qu Chuxiao) crosses paths with Qing Ming when the latter and his coterie of magical animal friends rob a convoy laden with tributes for the Emperor. Driven to retrieve the treasure Boya teams with wannabe wizard Shen Li (Shen Yue) and sneaks into the Monster Realm where they find Qing Ming is a benevolent sort who runs a peaceful retreat for reformed monsters, fairies and assorted enchanted critters. When the Scale Stone is once again targeted by the mysterious villain and his sexy minion the Snow Lady (Wang Zixuan), everyone including Yin Yang security officer and Qing Ming’s lost love Bai Nu (Zhou Xun) are swept up in a dimension-hopping adventure with the safety of the mortal world at stake.
The blockbuster success of Monster Hunt (2015) seems to have sparked a subgenre of Chinese wu xia fantasies where martial arts heroes battle creatively-designed computer animated creatures. Lately even Jackie Chan is in on the act with the imaginative The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang (2019). Digital effects are one area, where The Ying Yang Master indisputably triumphs. From the kung fu ferrets (yes, you read that right), loyal mice and turtle warriors (not of the teenage mutant variety) that accompany Qing Ming and his merry band to the memorable, deceptively diminutive Red Ghost that befriends Boya, to the assorted fairies, nymphs and demons that populate the Monster Realm, the creature designs are eye-catching and rife with personality. Adapted from the console game Onmyoji, itself based on a popular novel series created by prolific Japanese fantasy author Baku Yumemakura, The Yin Yang Master weaves an undeniably spellbinding mythology that is as vivid as the cinematography by Wang Bo-Xue and production design by Yoshihito Akatsuka. Visually the film achieves a truly epic scope, one that crucially also has a naturalistic, tactile quality too often lacking in sterile CG-driven action films.
Where the film stumbles somewhat are the human characters who, for the most part, prove rather bland. Chen Kun, a more than capable actor elsewhere (e.g. Mojin - The Lost Legend (2015)), lacks the charisma needed make Qing Ming a compelling antihero. The script has a lot of talk about how Qing being 'half monster' makes him susceptible to the evil influence of the wicked dragon Xiang-Liu, but the one-note stoicism on display does not sell the viewer on his supposedly tortured psyche. By comparison the child actors portraying the younger incarnations of the Yin Yang security team are much more expressive. Similarly more engaging is the feuding semi-romance Qu Chuxiao's likably flummoxed Yuan Boya shares with gap-toothed cutie Shen Yue's feisty wizard girl. Alas, the film barely develops their bond and similarly sidelines accomplished actress and fantasy film veteran Zhou Xun. Perhaps because the source material actually foregrounds the almost homoerotic bond between Qing Ming and Yuan Boya although there is not much of that here either. The plot unfolds in an enigmatic, circuitous manner that makes it seem more complex than is actually the case. However, if entered into with the right spirit, the film is consistently watchable and fun. It also pulls off a rather neat, albeit downbeat, twist as viewers come to realize we are not watching a hero's journey but instead a villain's origin.