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An epic hybrid of storybook fable and good-versus-evil supernatural fantasy, Once Upon a Time would give prospective viewers a better hint at its convoluted nature if it wore the title of the Chinese novel on which it is based: Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms (Vietnamese tittle: tam sinh tam the thap ly dao hoa). 

Confused identities and scrambled romance make plot summaries impossible, and even describing the picture's quicksilver mood changes might test a reader's patience. Suffice to say that in the States, the film's only likely audience consists of native Mandarin speakers with kids to entertain — but even that demographic isn't sure to attend: As unlikely as it may seem, this lavish feature arrives in the same year as a Chinese television version, in which a different cast and crew tell the story in 58 episodes of 45 minutes each. Reportedly, that retelling has been a huge hit online with viewers outside China.

[Image: once_upon_a_tim_2-h_2017.jpg]

The two first-time feature directors behind this version come with visual backgrounds: Anthony LaMolinara has worked in visual effects and animation for some major Hollywood productions; the more accomplished Zhao Xiaoding has served as cinematographer on multiple Zhang Yimou films and other high-profile imports. The two show no interest in restraint here: Landscapes glow with jewel tones that would make Thomas Kinkade queasy; their fondness for greenscreen fantasy realms might make George Lucas wonder what he hath wrought.
Less attention is paid to niceties like segues in tone. The action begins in child's-storybook mode, with an immortal empress (Liu Yifei - Luu Diec Phi ) frolicking in bucolic settings accompanied by a cutesy sidekick who looks like Baby Groot reborn as a Brussels sprout. Then she crosses paths with the crown prince of the Nine Heavens (Yang Yang) and gears shift into a romantic farce of mistaken identities.

Each of our leads has doppelgangers or previous reincarnations to contend with, super-powered figures whose backstories tie them up in age-old conflict between the Nine Heavens and the Demon Tribe. At first, the arrival of a queen resembling Snow White's evil stepmother suggests that Once Upon a Time will embrace its Disney-like aspects; soon, though, Peter Jackson-grade worldmaking becomes the goal, and our two split-personality lovers are wrapped up in serious, often confusing pathos.

Sadly, the ambitious film never approaches the gravitas that helped the Lord of the Rings films involve us in their mythology. While the long, twisty pic never lacks for novelty — even in the final scenes, it has an army of CGI hummingbirds in its back pocket, just waiting to vanquish a more beastly crowd from the skies — it gives newcomers to this material very little reason to care about what they're seeing. Fans of the novel (which is said to have sold well Stateside) might want to scour the web for all-region DVDs of the TV version instead, which goes by the name 

Eternal Love.
Production company: Alibaba Pictures Group
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Liu Yifei, Yang Yang, Yikuan Yan, Jin Luo, Chun Li
Directors: Zhao Xiaoding, Anthony LaMolinara
Screenwriter: Tang Qi
Producers: Sa Zhilei, Wang Yanan
Executive producers: Li Li, Runshen Chen, Peter Zheng, Kenny Chau, Sunny Chen
Director of photography: Xiaoding Zhao
In Mandarin
109 minutes
The directorial debut of longtime Zhang Yimou cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (he shot all of Zhang’s films from House of Flying Daggers through The Great Wall), it’s as lushly gorgeous as anything in higher profile releases like Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, with acres of peach blossoms, castles in the clouds, and godlike beings morphing freely into animals. The story is adapted from a 2008 online fantasy novel called Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms by Tang Qi, which may have been plagiarized from an earlier online fantasy novel called The Peach Blossom Debt by Da Feng.
Der Film hat eine recht simple Handlung, die durch den mythologischen und fantastischen Kontext eine Fuhre Komplexität erhält. Zhao Xiaoding hat diese Grundsubstanz mit einer Handvoll schauspielerischem Können, einer guten Dosis Symbolik und einigen Spritzern Moral für den ethischen Geschmack in einen Topf geworfen, umgerührt und das Resultat womöglich etwas verfrüht vom Herd der filmischen Schöpfung genommen.

Der Film schafft es, den Zuschauer zu fesseln, ihn aber auch aufgrund vermeintlich fremder Erzählstrukturen zu verwirren. Die Schauspieler wirken in ihrem Spiel charismatisch überzeugend und die Szenerie in ihrer Einfachheit einladend. Dennoch mangelt es dem Film an einer Prise Professionalität im technischen sowie im dramaturgischen Bereich. Once Upon A Time – In einer fantastischen Welt ist ein Film, der zunächst kurzweilig unterhält. Es ist jedoch auch ein Film, der zum erneuten Anschauen und Interpretieren einlädt. Somit soll diese Rezension keine allumfassende Kritik darstellen. Stattdessen handelt es sich um den Versuch einer Annäherung an ein fantastisches Kino, welches uns fremd und doch vertraut erscheinen mag…
It was nice to look at but in the end didn't amount to much. The love story was teased as being epic in scale, but ultimately felt empty and poorly told. Maybe Liu Yifei just picks bad projects, but none of her films have really worked for me thus far. Another failed blind buy.

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