It’s easy to think of big, splashy, ultimately vapid blockbusters as a quintessentially American product, a national export to rival Coca-Cola or military interventions, but while Hollywood may have invented and perfected (for various definitions of “perfect”) the blockbuster model, many countries have attempted to get in on the game. Take Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, a 2015 Chinese blockbuster, for example. Like many of its American contemporaries, Ghostly Tribe is big, loud, colorful and packed with action, effects, and drama, but also like many recent American blockbusters, it’s kind of a mess. With a scattershot approach to genre and pacing, marginally charismatic leads, and a confused and meandering script, Ghostly Tribe is the embodiment of the overblown summer spectacle’s worst qualities, distinguishable from its American counterparts mostly in that dances to a Communist drumbeat rather than a Capitalist one.
The story begins in 1970s China, when an explosion at an archaeological dig reveals a hidden path through the mountain, as well as multiple unidentifiable fossils. A group of army volunteers, including our young hero, Hu Bayi, joins an elderly archaeologist and his daughter on a trek through the mountain and across the snowy plains on the other side. After the group has been whittled down by avalanches, falls, and flaming bat-like creatures, they find the fabled “Demon Pagoda” and nearly unseal it. Flash forward several years, and Bayi is brought back into adventure when the professor and his daughter re-emerge after having been presumed dead, as a secluded oil town comes under attack by monsters that may or may not be related to the events at the pagoda.
Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe isn’t so much a film as it is a ride, a brisk trek through set-pieces, exotic lands, and even whole genres with fairly flimsy connective tissues. Things start out a bit At the Mountains of Madness, with the whole trek through the snowy wastelands towards a secret from pre-human history happening before flashing forward several years and morphing into a more action-oriented affair. By the film’s third act, however, we’ve gone from snowy peaks to a shootout with dog-like monsters in the ruins of a small town. Oh, and an Elvis impersonator joins the cast midway through, apropos of nothing. Tonally, it’s all over the map, liberally mixing elements of horror, action, adventure, and comedy with very little care put into how those elements mingle.
All of this would be fine if it made any goshdarn sense, had a logical progression, or maintained a narrative flow. Ghostly Tribe is built around a strange fantasy/sci-fi mashup mythology involving ancient aliens, genetic curses, and monsters, one which doesn’t hold up to too much scrutiny when you look too hard at it. Most of this is served to us in the form of large exposition dumps against CGI backdrops, and even if you try and pay attention there are contradictions and unexplained events to spare. One minute the dog-like monsters that menace our heroes during the final action set-piece are taking their marching orders from one particular character; the next, they’re attacking her. Characters will manifest under-defined superpowers and heroic destinies with little forewarning, giving the impression that this was written on the fly. A lot of the film’s bigger ideas and concepts also go mostly unresolved, left as a hook for a sequel that, as of the time of this writing, doesn’t look to be happening. Of course, a large part of this comes from the fact that the film is based on a novel, and the film absolutely suffers from a bad case of “adapted from a book-itis.” All of this convoluted, contradictory hodgepodge of a story probably makes sense somewhere, and there’s probably a way to explain the lore, but sadly that understanding is nowhere to be found in the film itself.
Visually, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is certainly something to see at times. It’s often bright and colorful, full of sweeping vistas and enough layered compositions that it becomes obvious pretty quickly that it was originally made to be watched in 3D. The effects are fairly mixed in their quality, but when they’re good they’re at least interesting to look at. Still, even that seems fleeting, unfortunately. While the visuals seem to pop in the first act, the last third takes place in a teal and beige wasteland, with enough ruined buildings being smashed by monsters and explosions that the Michael Bay comparison becomes unavoidable – which is an interesting comparison on multiple levels, because while the film shares some subtle visual DNA with Bay, it also carries over some of his propagandist instincts. While Bay is all about American values and military fetishism, however, Chronicles is more about communist pride, at least superficially. This element alone gives it some sense of unique identity (to Westerners at least), especially since the lore is largely kept removed from any kind of Chinese mythology.
For the most part though, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is the same candy bar you’ve eaten dozens of times, in a slightly more exotic wrapper. While you’re watching it, you’ll probably find something of interest in the film’s occasionally dazzling visuals, but there’s nothing to stick in the mind. It’s a film that tries to be a bit of everything, and in the process succeeds at nothing.