Director – Wuershan – 2023 – China – Cert. 15 – 148m
A king’s infatuation with a beautiful woman possessed by a vixen demon threatens to bring down a terrible curse upon his kingdom – first part of epic, period, mythological adventure trilogy is out in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday, September 22nd
This first trilogy instalment of an adaptation of the Xu Zhonglin-attributed novel Investiture Of The Gods, written towards the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), deals with the downfall of the Shang dynasty (which existed well before a thousand years BC). While the tale may well contain elements of historical truth, it also mixes in supernatural deities and creatures to cover an awful lot of ground in its two and a half hours’ running length.
The novel is known by a number of titles in Chinese, one of which is Fengshen Bang, an artefact of which name turns up in this film as a sort of MacGuffin, here a mystical scroll endowing its owner with great power which at least one major character seeks to possess, others seek to help him do so and immortals want to make sure it gets into the right (i.e. righteous or deserving) hands rather than his.
The incredibly convoluted plot goes something like this: The Shang dynasty’s King Yi (Xu Huanshan) sends his son Prince Yin Shou (singing and pop star phenomenon Fei Xiang aka Kris Phillips) and his army of hostage-sons to crush a rebellion by Lord Su Hu, whose beautiful daughter Su Daji (Narana Erdyneeva) commits suicide rather than face capture only for her body to be possessed and reanimated by a seductive vixen demon, herself reanimated by aristocratic blood leaking into her underground tomb, who persuades Shou to take her back to his home city of Zhaoge as his concubine rather than kill her.
Three immortals from Kunlun, Nezha (Wu Yafan), Yang Jian (Cisha), and their older, wiser leader Jiang Ziya (Huang Bo), are concerned that Yi Shou is a self-centred despot who has brought a curse upon the land after succeeding King Yi following his murder, and are concerned that the Fengshen Bang he desires should rather go to his more morally upright hostage-son Ji Fa (Yu Shi). Nezha, incidentally, appears to be the same character represented (albeit very differently) in Shanghai Animation Studios’ Nezha Conquers The Dragon King (Wang Shuchen, Yan Dingxian, Xu Jingda, 1979).
Meanwhile, a rebellion against the Shang by four Dukes named after the four points of the compass is crushed, with only the Duke of the West (Li Xuejian from The Blue Kite, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993; Shanghai Triad, Zhang Yimou, 1995; The Emperor And The Assassin, Chen Kaige, 1997), Ji Fa’s father, on whose faulty divination the revolt was based, surviving the subsequent massacre.
There’s a lot more to it than that brief outline, including a sorcerer of the black arts who towards the end brings two stone dragons to life in the King’s city, an attempt by Queen Jiang (Yuan Quan from The Captain, Andrew Lau, 2019)) to kill the seductive Su Daji (actually the vixen demon) and a bat-winged monster earlier rescued as a blue baby from abandonment in a forest by the Duke of the West.
The look and feel of the whole is astonishing, the remarkable combination of both scale and detail in the art direction is by Tim Yip (costume designer on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee, 2000 and Red Cliff, John Woo, 2009), from vast CG sets and equally vast armies on battlefields, lots of amazing CG effects work, through more intimate court, horseback riding and woodland scenes, right down to the detail on the amazing costumes.
It can sometimes get a little confusing following who’s who, but various court intrigues, the ins-and-outs of complicated (largely male) family relationships, fights with the vixen demon which outside of Daji’s body resembles a vicious, ghostly, flying white fox and much, much more ensure that most of the time, you’ll never be bored. Even if the production never quite reaches the delirious heights of that big budget, Japanese Studio fox spirit outing The Mad Fox (Tomu Uchida, 1962).
That said, there are times when it all seems a little too large a production and a little too worthy and serious for its own good; there’s none of the knockabout humour you’ll find in such obvious Hong Kong Chinese forerunners as Zu Warriors (Tsui Hark, 1983), A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu Tung, 1987) or A Chinese Odyssey (Jeff Lau, 1995). This problem is especially true of the opening hour or so.
Still, it’s a lot more impressive than this week’s Hollywood franchise actioner, the predictable Expend4bles (Scott Waugh, 2023). Indeed, while perhaps no masterpiece, it’s also a lot better than some of the more lacklustre, recent Chinese blockbuster releases. Roll on parts II and III.
Finally, watch out for a couple of significant extra scenes in the end credits which wrap up a plot point and indicate things to come in the next instalment. Even without those scenes, I was marvelling at the sheer numbers of effects companies involved from around the globe, not just China and the US (including the legendary Tippett Studio) but also France (Buf) and India, among others. I doubt the film will be around in UK cinemas for long, so if you like the sound of it, go and see it as soon as you possibly can.
Creation Of The Gods 1: Kingdom Of Storms is out in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on Friday, September 22nd.