April 29, 2018

ONCE UPON A TIME (2017) and the Monotony of Monet

Starring Liu Yifei, Yang Yang, Luo Jin, Yan Yikuan, Li Chun, Gu Kuan, Peng Zisu. Directed by Zheo Xiaoding & Anthony LaMolinara. (2017/109 min).


Review by Tiger Longtail😼

Every now and then, my wife and I get the urge to introduce a bit of culture into our dreary lives. So when the Portland Art Museum announced an exhibit featuring the works of Claude Monet, Francie suggested we take the kids downtown one weekend to indulge in a bit of art appreciation. I had no problem with it since this particular weekend was the museum's monthly free admission day. Art is always easier to appreciate when it doesn't cost anything but gas.

For you uncouth swine who don't share my pretension for enjoying fine art, Claude Monet was a French impressionist who's probably most renowned for painting pictures of flowers, ponds and waterlilies, occasionally punctuated by people picnicking around flowers and ponds with waterlilies. Most of Monet's work is light, colorful and certainly pretty to look at. But like AC/DC, most of Monet's paintings are pretty much variations of the same thing. Walking the museum halls with my wife and kids, getting our money's worth (hey, gas ain't cheap!) by stopping to gaze at every single painting, I was thoroughly bored after about 15 minutes.

Claude Monet...the Impressionist Movement's AC/DC.
Watching China's fantasy epic, Once Upon a Time, is kind-of like slogging through that Monet exhibit. It's colorful, absolutely gorgeous and features some otherworldly imagery that - while obviously CGI - practically jumps off the screen. And for the first 10 minutes or so, the film is visually enthralling, even though we're never once convinced these actors are sharing the same space as their surroundings.

Unfortunately, it's all to serve a relentlessly talky, convoluted story that feels like we're joining it halfway through. In a nutshell, Once Upon a Time is sort of a fairy tale, mostly about a September courtship between two shape-shifting immortals, Bai Qian and Ye Hua, who also happen to be royalty and have been betrothed to each other (even though he's 50,000 years younger). There are also a slew of flashbacks of Ye Hua's previous marriage (to a mortal who saved his life), as well as a vengeful sorceress, a jealous princess and a guy in frozen stasis named Mo Yuan, all stirred into a plot that, despite ample exposition by various bland characters, is murky and uninvolving. What we have left are the visuals and sporadic bursts of action, which of course includes gravity-defying swordplay and movement so CGI-heavy that it all ceases to be logistically convincing.

Ye Hua visits Supercuts.
Worse yet, now imagine Monet taking one of his most famous paintings, like In the Garden, and handing it over to French comic artist Peyo, who adds Papa Smurf to the picture. Once Upon a Time does something similar, giving Bai Qian a comic relief sidekick who resembles a walking cabbage and looks like he was designed by someone from a completely different animation studio.

Despite being technically ambitious, I'm not sure what audience Once Upon a Time is aiming for. The narrative is too confusing for kids, the action too generic for thrill-seekers and the characters too bland to create any dramatic interest. What we're left with is similar to a gallery of Monet paintings: It is unarguably beautiful, but scene after scene of dazzling imagery, no matter how creatively rendered, becomes monotonous after awhile.


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