Teng Cheng, Li Wei, “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification” (2020)
Inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel by Xu Zhonglin, “The Investiture of the Gods”, itself based on Chinese mythology and legends, this epic animated blockbuster is a sequel to the 2019 release “Ne Zha”, taking place in the same universe of gods, demons and humans co-existing and interfering in one another’s affairs as that film. The original Jiang Ziya was an actual historical figure who helped to overthrow King Zhou, the last of the Shang Dynasty rulers some 3,000 years ago, in this film Jiang Ziya is a lesser immortal gifted with supernatural abilities and magic who comes to the material plane during the wars between the corrupt Shang rulers and a new dynasty to defeat and capture the evil fox demon Nine Tail. Charged with executing Nine Tail, Jiang discovers that she has bound a young girl Jiu to her with an ankle bracelet. To kill Nine Tail would mean also killing Jiu and so Jiang refuses to carry out the order of the gods of Heaven. The gods punish Jiang by exiling him to Earth. A faithful retainer, Shen, follows Jiang into exile.
From there the film follows Jiang as he unexpectedly comes upon Jiu, who has become separated from the fox demon, in a bar in his place of exile. Jiu is on a quest to find her father and needs to travel to Mount Youdu. Jiang recognises that Jiu is possessed by the fox demon and with his companion Four Alike follows Jiu on her journey into the realm of Beihai. The pace is slow and even so at least the film allows for the beautiful animated scenery and backgrounds to shine even when the characters are no more than stereotypes. On reaching Beihai after a hair-raising encounter with the souls of soldiers who died in the wars between the gods and humans on the one hand and the fox demons on the other, Jiang discovers some uncomfortable truths about the gods he had originally been chosen to join and about why the fox demons fought on the side of the unpopular and corrupt Shang dynasty.
While the computer-generated animation is visually gorgeous and colourful and the action is stunning in scale and creativity, after too many showy scenes the film becomes rather bland. The journey to Beihai gives little time for Jiang and Jiu to develop a strong friendship and Four Alike goes along for the ride just to add some cuteness. In its final third, the plot becomes somewhat convoluted for Western audiences not familiar with notions of reincarnation as Jiang tries desperately to save Jiu from a second incarnation bound to Nine Tail. Messages about how heroes create their own destinies and become heroic through their own sacrifices and defying fate, even the will of Heaven; valuing all life for its own sake (the film can be seen as an extension of the classic Trolley dilemma); the possibility that even the gods themselves are not infallible; finding one’s place in the social order; and restoring and putting right past wrongs – even resolving the damage done to the restless souls of dead people – are important but they can be lost as the plot quickly becomes complicated in the film’s last half-hour (in comparison to its straightforward trajectory earlier) and the action literally vaults from the realm of the dead to the highest heavens with all the breathtaking bombast the animation can muster.
The characters are not well developed and hew to stereotypes that may be current in much Chinese fantasy animated films: the serious hero with compassion and the Keanu Reeves looks, the young girl or boy who’s a bit sassy and streetwise, the lovable animal companion, the stalwart and slightly dim-witted warrior companion. This film is obviously targeting a generation of young Chinese viewers familiar with cinematic and videogame product from Japan and elsewhere and who expect to see certain cinematic and game conventions. While it means well and aims to instill some age-old lessons about inner personal integrity and correcting past wrongs, the film does fall flat through trying to compete with superficial Western blockbuster superhero flicks.