This one’ll be a rollickin’ fun chase-caper with a sense of suspense and excitement that made flicks like THE MALTESE FALCON and THE ITALIAN JOB classics, along with a little modern CHARLIE’S ANGELS/BOURNE IDENTITY flavor.
Our teaser opens with an authoritative voiceover explaining the ascension to power of China in the Ming dynasty of ZHU DI, the fourth prince. Born in 1360 to a monk who would eventually become the Emperor Hongwu, Zhu Di ascended to Imperial power as an adult after the death of his father and then leading a successful rebellion against his own nephew, Jianwen, who’d been named Hongwu’s successor.
While this voiceover gives the audience a little painless exposition and backstory under the opening credits, we show an eleven-year old Chinese boy and a small girl racing through the woods, chasing a small dog. This is Zhu Di, the future Third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and his friend, LI PO. The dog wears an ornate armor and collar, denoting the Prince’s station. They scamper a bit until they enter a clearing atop a hill overlooking Beijing in 1371. There’s a thunderclap, not unlike an exploding artillery shell, which is rare but not unknown in this era. It’s noontime; a wonderful day. The sky is clear… it can’t be thunder. Zhu Di and Li Po look up and see… a meteor? A rocket? Something… screaming overhead and by them and impacting into the ground a mile or so away. Zhu Di makes a move towards the impact crater, but the dog tries to stop them, physically interjecting himself between the bull’s-eye and the Prince… but the Prince and his friend go to investigate.
They find a trench leading to a new “cave” freshly dug in the side of a hill. Steam wafts lazily out as the two children peer in. There seems to be a flickering of light, a mechanism of some kind, and… a shape. Not quite a man, and not quite an animal, it seems to be something in-between. Li Po, a year older and much more inquisitive, goes inside. Zhu Di moves to follow, but the dog bars his way, protectively. There’s an inhuman growl and a quite-human screech, and Zhu Di fears Li Po has met her end… but out of the darkness and smoke comes Li Po, much more poised, a severe cast to her face… and her silky black hair is now a coarse reddish-brown… almost fur-like in appearance. They return to the palace but never speak again.
Eventually becoming Emperor himself, and now called Chengzu, Zhu Di was known for his ruthlessness, and ordered the only tenth-agnate extermination in Chinese history, against a speechwriter who had insulted him. Although a despot, he is considered one of the most influential leaders in Chinese history, having set out sea-going explorations on the largest sail-powered ships ever made. Reforms in economics, education, and military tactics were the norm for him as an adult. It was Chengzu who ordered the capital moved from Nanjing to Beijing, and who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City there, in a very, very specific spot.
Its Chinese name is “Zijin Cheng” which is literally translated as “Purple Forbidden City.” Notable, as “Zi,” or “purple,” refers to the North Star, which, in ancient Chinese astrology indicates the realm of the Celestial Emperor… legend has it that Chengzu, or the Yongle Emperor, has had the Forbidden City constructed not as an Imperial Palace, but as a prison. A prison for something that came from the North Star itself and can command friends to turn into enemies. No one… no thing… can enter or leave save by the Emperor’s order. He has had constructed an armored gauntlet… an articulated metal glove in the style of his faithful boyhood dog’s royal collar, to act as a key to the MERIDIAN GATE, the southernmost and largest gate into the Forbidden City. And only the boy Zhu Di, whose temple name is now Chengzu… the Yongle Emperor himself… has access. Legend says THE HAND OF HEAVEN… the armored gauntlet, and key to the Forbidden City… was lost in the Gobi Desert while Yongle chased Tartars; others say Gang Bing, a favored general who castrated himself to prove a point to his Emperor, was given The Hand in recompense and honor, and his descendants keep it safe to this day. But no one really knows…
…and we now flash to the present, where we find the voiceover has been a lecture given to a group of American college students (featured among whom is IFEN SUNG, a female Chinese-American chemistry student; severe and serious but also with an odd sense of whimsy) on a school-sponsored trip by a trim, adventurous-looking Chinese professor named TAK SHEN, standing outside the south entrance to the Forbidden City, the Meridian Gate. Arrayed before them are the main gate and the five sub-gates. Basically an Asian Indiana Jones, Shen tells the assembled students (and his cousin, Ifen Sung) of the symbolism inherent in the design of the Forbidden City, a little bit about the physical layout of Beijing (with the five concentric ring-roads), and…
…suddenly, there’s a blood-curdling scream, not unlike the yelp we first heard in the flashback. Inhuman, and yet human at the same time… is it the return of the monster, in the present day…?
…but it’s a squeal of happiness and recognition, as two more of our main characters, HOLLY ANDERSON (a red-headed cheerleader and communications student, a bit of a vixen) and CLAIRE DONAHUE (a blonde-bombshell-type who is, perhaps incongruously, a mathematics savant), see their friend Ifen at the lecture and show off a bit of the stuff they’ve bought on a brief shopping excursion, instead of listening to Shen tell them the background of the site. Ifen, Holly, and Claire are three parts of a whole; if you were to break down Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy in HAMLET for dialogue in the strictest Freudian sense, for the three, Ifen is the superego (pragmatic, logical) and would say, “To BE…” and Holly would respond, “…or, you know… NOT to be…” as the id, impulsive, and charming. Claire, as the ego, would split the difference, uniting the two sides of emotion and reason by admitting “…THAT is the question.” It’s this philosophical and symbolic trinity that will hold them in good stead for the ensuing scrapes…
After ruffled feathers get smoothed over, and the girls catch up, Shen continues, telling the story of the Qilin. At first thought to be a gentle creature only fierce when threatened by evil, Shen lets slip with a knowing nod that it’s the Qilin imprisoned under the Forbidden City, and only a certain trusted few, using The Hand of Heaven, are allowed in the gate to feed him once a year. Almost as an aside to Claire, Shen says that it’s a bit of a chore, feeding the Qilin, and that he doubts that the thing would cause much havoc if it got loose, much less bring about the end of the world as the elders say. Some say the Qilin would call its brothers and decimate the planet, eating everything and anything in its path, but Shen thinks the thing’s just too old… Claire takes him half-seriously, and off an odd look, seems to think he’s not relating a legend but telling some version of the truth.
“Sure,” he admits, conspiratorily, “my family’s been keeping the Qilin tamed for hundreds of years. I get to travel the world, reap fortune and glory, and then run students to Beijing once a year on a class trip, and when no one’s watching, I keep the thing docile. Feed a mythological creature honey and rice once a year to keep peace in the world… There are worse fates…”
C’mon; this is the 21st Century, there’s no such thing as demons and unicorns and dragons and whatnot, says one of the students. Sure there are, says Shen, and as they walk around the outside of the Forbidden City moat, he tells them of The Hand of Heaven and all the internally-consistent rules for the monster and keeping it contained. Ifen, Claire, and Holly seem to be paying the most attention, although there is someone on the fringe of the group that seems to be tagging along and eaves-dropping. This is KELLOGG, a rival of Tak Shen’s, who’s after the Hand so he and his masters can control the world. The idea is to let loose the Qilin and control it for ransom. The governments of the planet will capitulate to anyone who can stop a mythological creature from eating its citizens… Kellogg moves to the side, as Shen is regaling the girls with the tale of the Hand of Heaven. He sort of only half-believes the story, himself, at this point, even though he’s seen the Qilin and fed him as his grandfather and his father before him had. But it’s a chore to him, now, like getting your oil changed in your car; it’s not a sacred duty, as it is supposed to be. Not the duty of Gang Bing and his descendants… just a thing you do; like winding a clock. A very weird and mythological clock, but, still. Ifen, Holly, and Claire surround him, fascinated, but still disbelieving. Prove it, one says.
Shen unslings his backpack, and kneels down. Remember, he’s an Indiana Jones-type, all swagger and confidence. What could go wrong? Let me show my cousin and her friends that at least part of the story is true, he thinks, and slips on the gauntlet. As he pulls his arm out of the bag, clad in the jeweled, articulated plate armor key that allows him and his family access to the Qilin’s cage in the bowels of the Forbidden City… he holds it up and it sparkles in the sunlight… a magnificent piece of craftsmanship… the soundtrack swells…
And in a quick blur of motion, Shen is impaled! He’s staved from the back, his uplifted arm, poised, just for a moment, in mid-air, before he crumples as someone…something…? Grabs the Hand of Heaven off his arm and disappears into the crowd. Ifen goes to her cousin’s dying side to comfort him while flashing a look of alarm at her friends. Holly and Claire speed off after the… killer? The thieves…? It’s bedlam and blood and it’s for others to sort out. Right now it’s a footrace to destiny.
By the end of the first act we have been introduced to all the characters: Ifen Sung, a Chinese-American familiar with the myths she and her friends have been thrown into, but not an expert on… not by any means. Holly Anderson, a communications student with a hidden secret… one that caps the story when the secret is revealed; Claire Donahue, the no-nonsense girl you can count on, that never stops when it comes to her friends; and Kellogg, the opportunist who wouldn’t mind ending life as we know it as long as he gets to rule whatever it is that rises from the ashes. The location is established as Beijing and its ring roads in general and the Forbidden City in particular. We travel from the Forbidden City out in concentric circles in the chase for the Hand of Heaven, looping back towards the Forbidden City and the final battle and reveals. The premise, here, is that three American girls, with only limited knowledge of the city and the culture, with little sympathy and even less resources at their disposal, not only have to right an ancient wrong but allow the world of mankind’s ancestors to co-exist with the modern day.