It is based on a novel in the wuxia subgenre, xianxia, known for incorporating themes of reincarnation and karma. Sort of fittingly, Tang Qi’s novel Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms has also gone through many lives and identities. Published as To the Sky Kingdom in America, it has already been adapted for Chinese television as the hit series Eternal Love. More problematically, charges of plagiarism allege the novel’s basic narrative structure was lifted from Dafeng Guaguo’s semi-underground boy’s love novel Peach Blossom Debt, with the yaoi content replaced with straight romance. In any event, karma will not be denied in Zhao Xiaoding & Anthony LaMolinara’s Once Upon a Time, which opens this Friday in New York.
The realm of the immortals remains tranquil after their triumph over the demon clan, but it cost Bai Qian’s master Mo Yuan dearly. After exhausting his qi sealing the Demon Lord in Eastern Bell Mountain, his body was frozen in protective ice. For centuries, the immortal queen has awaited his thaw. In the interim, she has been promised to the crown prince Ye Hua to maintain peace in the Heavenly realm. Despite her loyalty to Mo Yuan, she finds herself developing feelings for the prince and his young son “Rice Ball,” whom he conceived with his late mortal wife Su Su.
It turns out Bai Qian looks an awful lot like Su Su and Ye Hua is a dead ringer for Mo Yuan. In fact, we eventually learn Bai Qian did indeed renounce her immortality and memory while despondent over the absence of her lord, but she no longer recalls their Earthly interlude. Unfortunately, that first attempt at fairy tale romance was undermined by the machinations of the devious Su Jin, who is still up to her old tricks.
Bai Qian/Su Su’s story will eventually be pieced together with enough cohesion for high fantasy wuxia. However, the idea that Ye Hua and Mo Yuan could be one and the same never makes any sense, even though the film constantly drops teasing hints to that effect. Frankly, it is pretty easy to see why Chinese TV took the first crack at To the Sky Kingdom of Peach Blossoms. At an hour and forty-nine minutes, it is clear OUAT has glossed over quite a bit. Yet, the vibe is so weird, in a beyond New Age kind of way, you sort of have to go with it. At least half the film feels like the scenes of Laurence Olivier and Ursula Andress wearing togas on Mount Olympus in the original Clash of the Titans.
Crystal Liu Yifei (of The Four trilogy) has the right porcelain goddess look and wuxia action chops for Bai Qian, a.k.a. Su Su, a.k.a. Si Yin (as her master used to call her). On the other hand, is poorly cast as Ye Hua/Mo Yuan. He looks too young and immature for an eighteen-year-old mortal, so forget about a millennia-old warrior. However, Li Chun makes quite the ruthless but tres elegant femme fatale as the scheming Su Jin.
The bad news is there is also a precious CGI character who acts like a reject from Monster Hunt. The good news is Su Jin has a cool looking tiger companion. You certainly won’t get bored by OUAT, but confusion is a near certainty. However, there is a large following for the property, who will probably be able to fill in the gaps on their own. Eternal Love is still a huge hit for Dragon TV and Zhejiang TV, like their Game of Thrones, but without the sex and violence (it also streams on dramafever, so the k-drama fans are well versed in Peach Blossoms as well). For newcomers, it is very strange, but it definitely grabs viewers on a deep Jungian archetypal level. Recommended as something different, Once Upon a Time opens this Friday (8/11) in New York, at the AMC Empire.