An 18th-century cartographer becomes lost in a small Ukranian village and stumbles upon a dangerous evil.
Forbidden Kingdom is the 2014 UK release for a Russian fantasy film entitled Viy. This isn’t to be confused with The Forbidden Kingdom, a martial arts film starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li that was released in 2004.
For the rest of the world, it was released under the title of Forbidden Empire. But whatever it’s called in your native land, the name doesn’t quite represent what the film is about. Surely the original title of Viy is intriguing enough!
Viy came to my attention recently when I posted news about the trailer for the upcoming sequel, Viy 2: Journey to China. What caught my attention about the sequel was due to the first on-screen appearance of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan. This is no doubt to help sell the film to a larger international audience.
According to Wikipedia, Viy had a rocky road through its stop/start production of several years due to financial problems. When it was finally released in 2014, it broke Russian box office records for its opening weekend.
A quick internet search leads me to a nearby branch of CEX, a dealer in 2nd hand films, games and electronics, where I picked up a copy of Forbidden Kingdom for a mere 50p.
Unfortunately, once I got home, I discovered the film only had two audio options, both of them in English. I was hoping for the original Russian audio with subtitles. Can’t really moan, it was only 50p. So I sat down and pressed play.
In the 18th century, cartographer Jonathan Green sets out to map the uncharted parts of Transylvania, and discovers dark secrets and dangerous creatures hidden in a cursed forest.
Note: The back of the DVD case mentions,
The villagers have dug a moat to cut themselves off from the rest of the world in the belief it will protect them from evil spirits.
The village has a small river running alongside but there’s no mention of any villagers ever digging a moat. Did the case designer even watch the film?
Viy is based on a Russian tale written by Nikolai Gogol that was published in a book of short stories in 1835. Forbidden Kingdom brings a new angle on the tale by introducing a cartographer, Jonathan Green, played by the British actor Jason Flemyng.
Set in the late 1800’s, Jonathan Green is having a secret relationship with Miss Dudley but he is caught out one morning by her rich father, Lord Dudley played by Charles Dance.
Jonathan flees the stately home and decides to travel East mapping out Europe during his travels. His coach and horse are fitted out with the latest scientific equipment enabling him to carry out this task.
However, Jonathan soon runs out of food and money and starts to travel aimlessly whereupon he is discovered by two Christian students travelling home from their place of education.
They tell him of tale long ago when three Christian students travelled to a nearby village. The young women of the village have a tradition where they float flowery reefs down the river and whichever man will find theirs, will become their true love.
One of the women swims over to the other side of the river believing a man has chosen her, but she is horrified to discover a huge beast with seven long horns that attacks her.
A friend hears the screams and finds the dying girl. The dying girl’s father is brought to the body and her last words to him are for a priest to watch over her body for three days.
The not all scary wooden church on top of the hill scenario!
The girl’s body is laid to rest in the old wooden church on top of the hill and one of the three travelling Christian priests is asked to watch over her in the church for three days. The father will pay a thousand gold pieces if he follows girl’s dying wish.
But something terrible happens in the church and the young priest was found dead on the morning of the fourth day.
Jonathan, a man of science, doesn’t believe a word of this tale. The two young Christian students realise how close they are to the cursed and village and make their excuses and leave.
As Jonathan approaches the village, he comes under attack from a pack of supernatural werewolves. His adventure is about to begin.
To start on a positive note, Forbidden Kingdom is certainly a visually impressive film in all areas.
The sets for the village and the church where the film spends the majority of its time are fantastic and certainly have look and feel of an 18th-century dwelling. Situated within a forest, the set certainly feels like a remote location with the church situated on a large hill overlooking the village.
In reality, this was certainly achieved with a mixture of visual effects, most predominantly some beautiful miniature work and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). There was one action sequence that involved a witch flying around the village rooftops which reminded of a similar scene from Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners that used the same visual effects techniques.
There are two very impressive visual effects sequences that mix practical and CGI to great effect. The first involves the young priest trying to survive from the horrors and demons in the church that I found quite reminiscent of the Evil Dead films.
Our hero, the 18th-century cartographer, Johnathan Green (Jason Flemyng).
The second sequence is when Jonathan finds himself having dinner with a collection of demons. I think every visual effect available was used here including CGI, make-up, prosthetics and animatronic creatures. It certainly was the high point of the film, it’s just a shame it comes at around the halfway mark.
The costume work is also very impressive. Although the majority of the costumes are for the lowly villagers, there are little touches and details that bring their costumes to life. It’s not just a set of muddy shirts and trousers.
The costumes especially shine through for the ornate outfits worn by Jason Flemyng. He gets to wear several lavish historical British outfits along with Charles Dance who is seen several times throughout the film.
Forbidden Kingdom is let down though by its English dubbing. This may not be true, but I’m lead to believe that scripts are rewritten to try and convey the same story but using words to match the mouth movements of the actors.
The acting looked good but I didn’t always believe what was being said. The worst occasion came near the beginning of the film when Jonathan Green first encounters the Russian students on his travels.
Jonathan is quite obviously trying to communicate to them in his native language whilst they are speaking Russian, but because the whole scene is dubbed into English, it just makes Jonathan look like a bit of an idiot. This is why I prefer original language and subtitles wherever possible.
Obviously, I could follow the plot but it felt clunky at times and I do wonder if the information was lost during the translation.
Also, the big revelation of the truth at the end was an interesting climax to the story. Unfortunately, it only caused me to become further confused. I’m not sure where all the demons and witches appeared from and whether or not they actually existed.
The village priest. We can all trust him, right?
The film’s ending is not a big visual effect laden finish either like modern films of this genre. Forbidden Kingdom blows all of its big visual effects scenes by around two-thirds of the way through making the film feel uneven which wasn’t helped by some strange editing in places.
I don’t want to come down too hard on this film as the production values are so impressive and its a shame the English dub has spoilt that slightly for me.
I may search for an original language copy and make amendments to this review in the future.
3.5 Stars – Certainly an interesting and visually pleasing film to watch, but maybe try to find the original Russian release with subtitles.