Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is a Chinese fantasy-adventure film directed by Lu Chuan and loosely based on the popular Chinese fantasy novel series, Ghost Blows Out the Light by Zhang Muye. The story takes place in China throughout the late 1970’s and 1980’s, beginning with a large-scale excavation of mysterious caves hidden away in a snowy mountain range. A sudden and mysterious explosion halts the workers’ progress, and a small expedition sets out to investigate the source of the blast. The group is led by a scientist named Professor Yang (Wang Qingxiang), his daughter, Yang Ping (Yao Chen), and the worker who has fallen in love with her, Hu Bayi (Mark Chao). Inside the cave, the group discovers strange fossils of large, dragon-like beasts (and evidence that some of these monsters are still living), as well as swarms of tiny, blue, bat-like creatures that incinerate anyone who touches them. While following the tracks of one of the giant beasts, the group finds a “Demon Pagoda” carved out of stone. Professor Yang manages to open a portal in the structure, releasing thousands of ghosts into the cavern. Fearing for their lives, one of the workers closes the portal, causing the cavern to collapse and swarms of blue bats to descend on the group. They attempt to escape, only to encounter the large creature that they had been pursuing, which takes Yang Ping in its jaws. Hu Bayi is the only one of the group to return to the excavation site, and he spends the following years trying to unlock the mystery of the ghostly tribe and bring back his lost love.
If the plot to Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe sounds confusing, that’s because it is; and the above synopsis only covers the first 30 minutes of a nearly 2 hour film. Besides being confusing, one of the central issues is that the filmmakers clearly bit off way more than they could chew when developing the story. It’s as if they couldn’t decide which elements from the novels were the most pertinent, so they just jammed as many different plot lines in as possible; sort of a “quantity over quality” approach to storytelling. Instead of following a single thread from start to finish, the plot branches off in various different directions, none of which is ever fully realized to anyone’s satisfaction. The characters offer some rather uninteresting exposition to explain events from the beginning of the film, but none of them make all that much sense, and most of the questions the plot raises are explained away with the nonsensical “magic” of the Demon Pagoda. Hu Bayi and Yang Ping, as it turns out, are of vital importance to the mystery of the Ghostly Tribe, but there is no logical reason given for their status as “the chosen ones.”
This brings us to the titular “Ghostly Tribe,” which is hardly even present in the majority of the film, and for some reason this group is lumped together with the monsters that occupy the same cave. They both exist within the same realm, and pose some kind of existential threat to mankind, but we never really learn anything compelling about them. What we do learn is that the tribe is an ancient race that used to be live on Earth, but has been relegated to some other dimension, along with the giant dragon creatures and the small blue bats. It’s implied that their release from the Demon Pagoda would be disastrous to the human race, but we never really see the damage they are theoretically capable of; we only see the monsters that accompany them. Large segments of the film are just dedicated to fights between the groups of adventurers and the large dragon creatures, but these sequences are really nothing more than CGI spectacles. And even though the visuals are generally well-executed, occasionally the special effects are subpar, particularly during some of the more complexly-choreographed scenes.
But as needlessly complicated as the fantasy elements of the film are, the love story is equally confusing. Hu Bayi quickly falls in love with Yang Ping, who then gets taken by the monster. He later meets someone named Shirley, who looks exactly like Yang Ping, with the difference that she seems to have evil intentions. However, there still seems to be some kind of love connection, and through inane Demon Pagoda magic, Hu Bayi might be able to save Yang Ping, even though she is now evil and possibly part of the Ghostly Tribe, or maybe not. Who knows. I’m not even sure the script writers know.
You might think that I’m being overly critical. After all, many fantasy-adventure films are over-the-top with their ambitions, and offer very little in the way of a logical or grounded narrative structure. But Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe takes things a step further and gets absolutely ridiculous in the final act. With all of its many faults, the ending is perhaps the most disappointing part of the entire film. The explanation for the events of the first half of the film are only revealed in the last few minutes, but there are still questions left unanswered. It seems as though the filmmakers wanted to the leave open the possibility of a sequel, but if this was the case, it was not executed in an artful way. Instead, they end by answering all the questions we didn’t want answered, and none of the ones we did.
Though the plot is a mess and the end is frustrating for the audience, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is still pretty entertaining. It’s mindless entertainment, but it’s entertainment nonetheless. The story, with all its strange turns and half-baked ideas, moves along at a steady pace, and the action sequences are adequately thrilling. So, if you’re looking to turn your brain off and just watch a movie, this might just be the one for you.
Rating: ★½ out of 5
Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is currently available to stream on Netflix.
It is also available to purchase or rent on Amazon here.