The Yin-yang Master review: Fantasy franchise conjures boys' love undertones

Mark Chao (right) plays the bohemian Yin Yang Master Qing Ming alongside Allen Deng, the brooding, bow-wielding Boya in Yin Yang Master: Dream of Eternity.
Mark Chao (right) plays the bohemian Yin Yang Master Qing Ming alongside Allen Deng, the brooding, bow-wielding Boya in Yin Yang Master: Dream of Eternity.

Rating: PG13
Length: 133 minutes
Director: Guo Jing Ming
Cast: Mark Chao, Allen Deng, Wang Duo, Olivia Wang and Jessie Li

2 out of 5 stars

If you greatly enjoy mythical folklore, spell-crafting and half-naked men duking it out on a giant monster snake (innuendo wholly intended), then The Yin-yang Master: Dream Of Eternity might be just the movie for you.

Adapted from Japanese novelist Baku Yumemakura’s 1986 Onmyoji, it follows Yin Yang master Qing Ming played by the effervescent Mark Chao, who believes that in spell casting, offense is the best defence.

China seems to be in an onmyoji craze – just three days after The Yin Yang Master was released on Netflix last Friday, the streaming platform announced that it had picked up yet another Chinese movie based on the popular mobile game Onmyoji based on the famous novel, aptly titled The Yin Yang Master, this time starring Zhou Xun and Chen Kun.

Qing Ming's teacher Zhong Xing (Wang Duo) rebukes him for not mastering the most basic protection spell, and is then promptly slain by the incarnation of a massive demonic serpent, the show’s hungry antagonist who feeds on the evil desires of men to grow to its incredible size.

You might be forgiven if you thought that the spells Qing Ming casts look exactly like Dr. Strange's teleportation spell from the Marvel movies. Director Guo Jing Ming was embroiled in accusations of copying the Marvel films' CGI, and Yin-yang Master, originally released in Chinese theatres, was eventually pulled from the silver screen, though it was snapped up by Netflix.

Plagiarism aside, the movie also generally lacks a substantial plotline. The premise slithers upon the back of the massive demonic serpent, which appears once every few hundred years to terrorise the world. Each time, four of the Yin Yang sects send their most talented masters to subdue the serpent’s incarnation. Apart from the flashy action sequences and impressive spellcasting CGI, there is scant effort imparted into developing a more complex story, which is conspicuous from the beginning.

Qing Ming meets the handsome, bow-wielding Boya (Allen Deng from Ashes Of Love), one of the four masters of the other sects, and their relationship immediately starts developing the angry adolescent undertones of a boys' love series, when they fight pettily over whether to kill a demon or not.

Even the spirits that Qing Ming summons in battle are all pretty boys, with little to no background information as to how they came to be in his service. Dominance and submission seem to be the subtle overarching theme with our protagonist, with Boya eventually becoming a semi-nude spirit servant to Qing Ming – cue whip lashing sound.

These details definitely detract from the main storyline, which revolves around the love story of Qing Ming’s master, Zhong Xing and the princess Fangyue (Olivia Wang). Zhong Xing’s love for her was so great that he created a spirit of himself, He Shouyue (also Wang Duo) almost as powerful as himself to stay with the princess and protect her for all eternity, which was a pipe dream at best (hence the title).

Eternity would be too long a time for such a superficial movie to grace its current No.1 ranking on Netflix (in Singapore). Fangyue and Zhong Xing’s relationship was predictably doomed to flop miserably like the giant limp snake they eloped on. Perhaps the only redeeming feature was Wang Duo’s acting, portraying He Shouyue’s fall from benevolent righteousness to selfish desperation.

As a great lover of Japanese mythological folklore and mythical beings, I thought Yin Yang Master doesn't do justice to the rich fictional universe on any level, except for the ephemeral appearance of well-known spiritual demons/spirits and their fancy CGI powers.

Based on the famous Japanese onmyoji Abe No Seimei, who even has a shrine dedicated to him in Kyoto, Qing Ming was supposed to be the greatest spiritual master that Japan had ever known, and his servants had power beyond comprehension. Here, he is merely an unfortunate victim of an unfulfilled boy’s love and has unresolved master issues.

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