The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a powerful narrative that conveys through the use of fantastical imagery the lengths to which a memory of lost love can drive a person to literally challenge the permanency of death. In the canon of Western literature, it has become the template for all romantic love stories. In the realm of film, French director Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) is a great example of how to translate the myths of the past to a modern day setting, turning the story of Orpheus and Eurydice into an Atomic Age fairy tale worthy of the pulps. Several decades later, the malleability of the Orpheus myth leads us on a trip to China, a land that is no stranger to myths and legends, but instead of the familiar figures so often seen in fantasy and wuxia, we are transported to a 21st century world where the fiction found so often in science fiction is now reality.
Starting out as a twenty-minute animated short, Yang Li’s (using the moniker “Excellent Young Pilot”) film quickly gained an internet following in 2009 and its popularity soon had the first-time director working out the logistics for a feature length film. To help get his project off the ground he looked to experienced storyboarder Guo Fan, producer-actor Henry Fong, veteran cinematographer Peter Pau, and the son of Hong Kong legend Jackie Chan, Jaycee, to realize his vision. Unfortunately though, the mix of animation, live action, and CGI left a lot to be desired and Lee’s Adventure (2011) was released to mixed response.
Viewing the film without the baggage and expectations that many Beijingers had, my interest was piqued the moment we see an animated Jaycee Chan racing the cops on an abandoned highway followed by the eerie black of a dark tunnel. Eventually, the excitement dies down and we cut to a foggy pier. Are we seeing something real or an imagined space? Then two figures appear, a man and woman, these two we learn through the pauses in their dialogue are or were lovers. Something outside their control separates them. Time, death, space, biology, sanity, whatever it might be, Devotion Lee (Jaycee Chan) can not be deterred from his Orphic quest to reunite with his beloved Eurydice, the beautiful Fiona Wang in her feature film debut playing the mysterious Wang Qian. This age-old premise is so intriguing unto itself that, if told in a relatively straightforward fashion, it not only could rise to the level of high drama and tragedy, but also fulfill the requisite tropes of unrequited love and melodrama ubiquitous with Asian cinema.
Of course expectations are one thing and reality is another, and Lee’s Adventure suffers from an excess in style and a jarring mix of visual media, e.g. animation and CGI, which just doesn’t gel together as cohesively as it should . The idea of Lee suffering from an online casino invented malady termed Time Perception Disorder (TPN) and illustrated by the use of freeze frames, sped-up action, and shallow focus photography allow us a glimpse into Lee’s very special world, but spectacle alone can’t carry a film. And aside from that, what is TPN exactly? Is it a disease or a super power? Guo Fan and Xiao Bei Zhang, the screenwriters of the film, seem to constantly vacillate between these two possibilities but never quite give us any clear answer. They imbue Lee with the ability to stop, start, and interact with his frozen-in-time environment, but then give the character the crutch of having to take a red pill, mind you not to keep the effects of TPN from destroying his body, but as a way to introduce a prop which will figure greatly in the way Wang Qian meets her tragic end. His powers and the pills are too much of an artificial plot contrivance that Jaycee and Wang’s scenes of convivial bliss are wasted on hackneyed writing.
On the other hand, the film’s use of animation was quite inspiring and I couldn’t help but wish the film had stayed an animated feature. The fantastic elements of the film would not have compromised the believability of the world. A perfect example of this is Lee’s recap of how he got $500,000 RMB to a trio of police officers. Structured as a Hollywood style action trailer featuring big guns, bad foreigners, beautiful women, and a gamut of explosions, the action keeps escalating with the introduction of each new absurd element. The garish colors and corny dialogue are not just effective as both parody but also work as commentary on the Hollywood Blockbuster’s global reach.
Sadly though, these scenes are few and far between and we must eventually return to the proper story, Lee’s obsessive quest to be reunited with Wang Qian, a plot thread that is resolved through the sci-fi trope of time travel. To Li Yang Li’s credit, however, it was refreshing to have time travel via video game be the method by which Lee travels from era to era. Scenes of Chan’s character clicking away at a game controller look like masturbation sessions, his desire/lust to be reunited with Wang Qian sublimated by playing this video game, an obvious commentary of the current generation’s obsession with the digital/virtual world to the detriment of human interaction. Though Lee is eventually reunited with his Eurydice, I did love the bittersweet twist at the end. With all my complaining about the script I found Lee, now ravaged physically and psychologically by time, getting a moment to catch a glimpse of the ever-youthful Wang, who stands far out of his reach, an example of cinematic poetry. Like Orpheus, Jaycee Chan’s character never got the reunion he wanted, but while the Eurydice in the Ancient Greek myth is doomed to spend an eternity in the underworld. Lee has broken the barrier between time and space and freed her from death. Of course, ironically, in doing so he must pay with his life. Thus the price for Wang resurrection is Lee’s imminent death. The two forever separated again but by different circumstances this time.
At this year’s PiFan, Yang Li’s film won the European Fantastic Film Festival Federation Asian Award (EFFFF), an award given to promote the production of Asian genre film, but ironically Lee’s Adventure could have benefited from a reining in of visual style and a proper once-over of the screenplay. Though not a terrible movie and still worthy of a film fan’s time, the rough edges I mentioned kept me from enjoying the film fully. It is evident that Yang Li has great skill in creating powerful images, but hopefully with his next project, he can inject a bit more substance to his unique style.