The Fox Lover
aka 白狐 aka Arctic Fox
Written by ???
Directed by Niu Chao-Yang
Another effects-laden Mainland China film about fairy spirits, these have been all been slogs, and I was expecting another mediocre effort. The shocking thing is The Fox Lover is actually good! The freedom of not being a direct copy of one of the classic 80s/90s Hong Kong films has given it some freedom to still be loyal to the tone of the fox spirit movies, but to be able to do its own thing. The other key to success was it isn’t as big budget effects as it is advertising. There are a few scenes, but most of the effects are more practical, and the lack of money means they need to rely on things like the story and acting.
The Fox Lover is based on one of the tales in Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio/Liaozhai Zhiyi, the origin for a huge chunk of supernatural ghost lover stories in Chinese film – such as Erotic Ghost Story, Painted Skin, A Touch of Zen, and A Chinese Ghost Story.
I think things went a bit too far overboard as far as female characters getting a raw deal is concerned. But then practically every character has something bad happen to them. It’s even a disclaimer in the film itself – romances with fox spirits end in tragedy. The only reason the mother fox is offering her daughter to a human is from a sense of repayment for saving her life long ago. It also helps Lord Wang out, as his son Wang Yuen Feng’s mental condition will keep him from finding a human bride who would want to be with him (I don’t think that’s entirely true, as the Wang family has money and there would be many poorer families that would give multiple daughters. But I guess that’s not as good of a choice socially has a hot fox bride!)
Through a series of problems, the white fox family is drawn into battle with Sea Bat King, who murders Lord Wang as revenge for protecting his village from the Sea Bats. Madam Yu vows to avenge her friend’s death, but the Sea Bats are too powerful to fight without causing danger to her entire family.
The Fox Fairy Spirits:
- Gold (Li Xin-Chen) – Gold always carries a rabbit, because her hobby is animals. Color scheme: Yellow.
- Dream (Ma Ying-Qiao) – Her hobby is needlework. Color scheme: Orange
- Plum (???) – Her hobby is gardening. Color scheme: Brown
- Lotus (Chen Ha-Ni) – The de facto leader of the sisters. Her hobbies are chess and having a secret boyfriend. Color scheme: Red
- Bamboo (Jing Ling-Xiao) – The sister who is below Lotus in seniority. Her hobby is chess. Color scheme: Blue
- Peach (Yao Fei-Fei) – Her hobby is playing music. Color scheme: Pink
- Jade (???) – Twin with Flower, has black hair. Their hobby is swinging. Color scheme: Violet
- Flower (???) – Twin with Jade, has brown hair. Their hobby is swinging. Color scheme: Violet
- Ling (Yin Guo-Er) – Adopted human daughter, her hobby is serving tea. Color scheme: Green
- Willow (Gillian Chung Yan-Tung) – The crazy star of our show! Her hobby is mischief. Color scheme: Turquoise w/ lavender and green highlights
One thing I thought was neat was the set design. Sea Bat King’s lair has tons of random human skulls all over it, all deformed. The imagery looked like it was straight out of the low-budget 1960s Cantonese fantasy films I like. The limited budget is apparent in the amount of time they spend in certain sets, which also mirrors the old school flicks. And Sea Bat King’s costume and makeup is retro as well, a sort of 60s meets 80s aesthetic. He’s joined by his trusted adviser Wisdom Spirit(Kenny Kwan Chi-Bun), who looks like a veteran of the Kiss Army, featuring white makeup with a stylized red lighting bolt over one eye. Maybe he’s the Harry Potter Kiss member? Other Sea Bats appear in the beginning, but eventually there’s no time for them any more so they vanish into the plot holes.
If the magic valley the fox spirits live in looks familiar, that’s because it’s obviously Pandora from Avatar! Heck, even Willow has a blue color scheme! All of the fox spirits are color coded for easy reference, which is handy because there are so many they’d blur together otherwise. Only two besides Willow get any sort of personality, and one of those two is an adopted human. Never fear, (almost) everyone has their own individual character poster, so your favorite character can easily become a fanfic superstar.
The cautionary tale of Fish Fairy Yo(Gong Xin-Liang) emphasizes that relationships between fairies and mortals will be tragic. Fish Fairy Yo lives in her house at the bottom of the sea (not a pineapple), in complete delusion that she’s still living and laughing with her true love, a mortal that dumped her centuries ago. Unlike humans who can change their feelings about love, once a fairy spirit find a true love, they are doomed to be in love with that being forever. So either pick someone good, or bad tidings will happen. And you can always count on fate causing all sorts of hardships, because this is a Chinese tale!
Beyond the true love tropes, The Fox Lover is riding hard on the true love has amnesia but still loves you for some reason trope. This happens shockingly a lot in Chinese film, characters suffering for love and living with memories that the other lover loses. The Fox Lover follows the same “hero is an idiot” plot direction Tai Chi Zero used, and both feature the strong-willed woman being practically forced to marry the idiot hero, who just happens to have all sorts of crazy kung fu powers.
The film is weakest when it’s trying to be an effects extravaganza, particularly when Sea Bat King attacks in the final battle. So much is going on emotionally, but it all gets disrupted by the CGI bats flying around. Still, it could have been much worse. The Sorcerer and the White Snake turned their climactic battle into tons of boring CGI, a situation very similar looked like it was about to happen, when suddenly they went in a completely opposite direction, because they story took precedence over the effects! Amazing! It’s what I’ve been clamoring for for years! It was done better than Stephen Chow’s effort early in 2013, which had both story and effects, but melted them together in a way that didn’t quite work out as well as it could have.
The Fox Lover is the closest we’ve gotten to a Mainland Chinese film recapturing the magic of the fox spirit movies that permeated the era of Hong Kong cinema that cult movie fans my age cut their teeth on. Weird, predictable, unpredictable, annoying, beautiful, crazy, and a semi-mess that turns into something good. So of course it’s a film no one has heard of. So let’s change, that, shall we?
Rated 8/10 (culture, tree face, hair pin, jade seal, bat throne, fire test, magic bats, skeleton goo)
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