Like so many 2020 films, Double World was slated for a major theatrical release this summer. But due to the pandemic, it has become one of the first big films to jump online in some hopes of recouping its costs. It’s a shame because Double World is the kind of film that was made for the big screen. It opens a spectacular new fantasy world, brimming with ravishing visuals. Haven’t heard of it? Don’t feel bad. It’s from China. Had 2020 gone as planned, Double World might have had a limited North American theatrical release at best, but now we can see it on Netflix.
Double World is based on a popular MMORPG called Zhengtu, which is the movie’s original title in Chinese. Zhengtu means ‘way to conquer’. China’s massive population has the world’s largest online gaming community and Zhengtu is one of China’s top five online games, boasting millions of players since its debut in 2007. Zhengtu has a reputation for ruthless play. Gamers can boost their status just by buying it, resulting in many gaming addicts losing their family fortunes just to level up. A high-level character can die easily at the hands of a higher-level character, and that can be bought. And this real-world brutality carries over into Double World. Spoiler alert: many heroes die in this movie. Like any videogame-based movie, Double World has an intrinsic fanbase, enough to invest in a $42.9 M budget, which is modest by Hollywood standards but sizeable for China. Almost all that budget went into special effects.
Double World is the latest from Hong Kong director Teddy Chan. His last two projects were martial arts films starring Donnie Yen: the modern day serial killer thriller, Kung Fu Jungle, and Republic of China chase movie, Bodyguards and Assassins. Donnie isn’t in Double World; he’s currently trending elsewhere on Netflix in Ip Man 4: The Finale. Nevertheless, Double World is packed with Kung Fu fighting, which is unsurprising given its videogame origins.
Set in an ancient China fantasy world of swords, sorcery, dragons and oppressive tyrants, Double World has a hackneyed martial arts plot that has been replayed since Enter the Dragon – a tournament of epic proportions. However, in its defense, good Kung Fu films aren’t always so plot driven. It’s the action that sells it and Double World delivers plenty of fight scenes as warriors from across land gather to compete in a series of trials. The story centers around a threesome of competitors: an orphan thief reminiscent of an Asian Aladdin Dong Yilong (Canadian pop star Henry Lau), a haunted trooper with a broken spear Chu Hun (Kung Fu TV star Peter Ho) and a cute pickpocket with an anime-huge sword Jinggang (ingenue Lin Chenhan). Their performances are adequate although they are upstaged by Jiang Luxia as a revenge-driven freed slave and Hu Ming as the truly despicable villain Guan. It’s a convoluted tale of past tragedies and the struggle for redemption.
Where Double World succeeds is world building. The color schemes are sumptuous, a tantalizing visual treat replete with eye-popping CGI-enhanced sets and opulent costumes, all rich in detail. The arms and armor are beautifully actualized with dragon-encrusted helmets, sinister spinning sickles and wicked bladed tonfa, so elaborate that it will challenge the best of cosplayers. It’s such a brilliantly imaginative vision that viewers must chose between reading the subtitles or enjoying the scenery, and those that opt for the latter will likely enjoy it more.
The fight scenes constantly level up like a videogame should. Pulling the high-flying Kung Fu wires here is veteran Hong Kong choreographer Stephen Tung. Tung has directed action since the late seventies with over 80 films to his credit. Tung and Chen collaborated on The Accidental Spy, famous for Jackie Chan’s butt naked fight in an Istanbul street market. In Double World, Tung convincingly orchestrates the diminutive Jinggang wielding a gargantuan sword. The first tournament trial, a race across a web of chains over a spiked pit with random iron boulders, is so dazzling that Tung’s physics-defying melees can be forgiven. After all, it’s a fantasy film, like a comic book movie. You can’t call out fights for lack of realism when battling giant monster scorpions.
There was such an awesome line-up of blockbusters planned this summer and we’re all missing the diversion of going to a movie theater. Instead, we have the constant stream of hopeless news. In this new reality, escapist park-your-brain-outside fare like Double World is a welcome relief.
Double World is available on Netflix