A few years back, the Monkey King myth could not be escaped in the Chinese film industry, with countless adaptations expensive and cheap, live-action and animated, straightforward and oblique, flooding the big screen every year. This trend has since then subsided, with Monkey fatigue resulting in a few high-profile box-office disappointments (among which Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 and Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong), and the ape deity nowadays mostly confined to online movies, where he’s played by B-list (Collin Chou, Fan Siu Wong) or C-list (Peng Yusi) names, rather than the Donnie Yen’s, Aaron Kwok’s and Eddie Peng’s of his mid-2010s heyday. Chinese big screen fantasy is instead now becoming the dominion of Ming Dynasty epic Fengshen Yanyi (aka The Investiture of the Gods).

After Koan Hui’s League of Gods tried (and failed, despite a cast that included Jet Li, Louis Koo, Fan Bingbing and many more) to launch a live-action franchise based on the material, and with Jeff Lau’s Nezha (starring Leo Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Fengyi) still unreleased five years after being shot, it’s Jiao Zi’s animated Ne Zha that really set off the craze with its mammoth domestic take of 722 million dollars (making it the second highest-grossing film of all time). Now from the same studio comes Cheng Teng, Wei Li, Li Xia and Wang Xin’s Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification (henceforward Jiang Ziya), based on another character in Fengshen Yanyi, and whose success solidified the plan for a ‘shared universe’ approach: Ne Zha‘s eponymous main character cameos post-credits, with the next film in the universe teased afterwards. Of course, rival studios will soon launch their own takes: Zhao Ji’s New Gods: Nezha Reborn (actually in the works since before Ne Zha‘s mega-success) will be released next Chinese New Year.

Another trend of note to mention in relation to Jiang Ziya, is the rather meteoric rise of Chinese animation, with titles like the aforementioned Ne Zha, Gary Wang’s Cats and Peachtopia, and Amp Wong and Zhao Ji’s White Snake making noise overseas int he past few years, and reaching a level of quality in rendering that’s not too far removed from Pixar or Blue Sky offerings. Jiang Ziya marks a further step in this ascent: it is an absolute feast for the eyes, subtly stylized with streamlined, sometimes almost abstract backgrounds and landscapes, contrasting with lush and evocative character and creature design, all bathed in a remarkable use of lavish colors: the villain of the piece, red nine-tailed demon Daji, is a phantasmagorical marvel. If the plot – wherein strategist god Jiang Ziya is banished from heaven after failing to annihilate the demon Daji on order of his heavenly masters, and later becomes friend with a fox demon linked to the circumstances of his banishment – hadn’t been so quintessentially Chinese in its approach to fantasy (the stakes, involving locks of destiny, divine cultivation, and multiple layers of Heaven, will seem abstruse to many), and thus hard to grasp for most non-Asian audiences, there’s no doubt that this film could be an eye-opener for many unfamiliar with Chinese animation.

Long Story Short: Visually stunning yet narratively a bit too abstruse, Jiang Zia: Legend of Deification is further proof that Chinese animation is a force to be reckoned with. ***1/2

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  1. *** 1/2 stars now? How long before the internet explodes from such shocking developments? ;-) :-P


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