Last year the Chinese videogame Zhengtu (aka Double World) received a film adaptation courtesy of Hong Kong-based director Teddy Chen – his first feature since 2014’s Kung Fu Jungle. Due to the closures of cinemas last year it was released online via streaming services; iQiyi in China, and Netflix internationally.
Historically, adaptations of videogames have attracted considerable scorn and even today are broadly assumed to be a poor idea. While this dismissal of the form is understandable to anyone who watched 1990s efforts like Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros, in truth movies based on games have managed to pull something at least broadly entertaining about as often as they have failed. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise managed six instalments with only one genuine misfire. Other recent efforts such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Silent Hill, Assassin’s Creed, and Sonic the Hedgehog have at least succeeded in terms of aesthetic or character, if not always overall.
Only rarely has a videogame adaptation worked well enough to be considered an unqualified success, and arguably only once with American involvement (2019’s Detective Pikachu). Other successes like Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney (2012) and John Hsu’s Detention (2019) have been entirely Asian affairs (Japan and Taiwan, respectively).
Double World essentially fails somewhere in the middle of those two groups. It is certainly a cut above the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia, but at the same time a surfeit of characters and lack of emotional complexity keeps it from fully working in its own right. Ardent fans of Chinese fantasy and wuxia will find plenty here to hold their interest, but a reliance of CGI for sets, stunts and monsters brings an unfortunately sense of artificiality.
The storyline is not particularly worth summarising: a divided kingdom is kept in line by a giant fighting tournament, into which three individuals enter – each with their own skills and agendas. The film’s lead characters are uniformly weak stereotypes, including the obligatory idealistic young thief (Henry Lau), the grizzled campaign soldier (Peter Ho), and the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ with a crush on the lead and a comically over-sized sword straight out of the nearest anime (Lin Chenhan). They are all solidly performed, but in all honesty there is little here with which to work. Superficiality is the production’s watch-word.
The action and wire-work is broadly excellent, which is unsurprising given the similarly strong choreography in Chen’s earlier films – particularly Bodyguards and Assassins. Buy into the elaborate production design and visual effects and parts of the film become actively enjoyable. It would take a stronger viewer than me to resist the appeal of sword-fights with giant scorpions and snake dragons.
It is essentially a Hollywood-style Chinese summer blockbuster: all sound and fury, and packed with stuff and nonsense. As a relatively attractive diversion, Double Word suffices as entertainment. It only becomes frustrating when one looks at some of the director’s previous work, and realise deep down that he is easily capable of better.