Thursday, January 19, 2023

New Gods: Yang Jian, from GKIDS

Like nearly every other Chinese mythical figure, Yang Jian (a.k.a. Erlang Shen) makes an appearance in Journey to the West, but he is more prominent in the classic novel, Creation of the Gods and the fairy tale, Lotus Lantern. Those are the sources director Zhao Ji and screenwriter Muchuan primarily draw from for the second film in their mythical News Gods animated franchise. There is also a lot of weirdness added to Zhao’s New Gods: Yang Jian, a GKIDS release, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Around a millennium and a half ago, the gods were sort of overthrown, but they are still around. Yang Jian is proof, as the offspring of a goddess and a mortal man. That kind interbreeding is frowned upon, but he was still hailed as a hero, until an ugly incident closed his third eye. During the battle, Yang Jian was forced to seal his goddess sister inside a mountain. Rumor has it, his reason for doing so was surprisingly lurid (really, GKID?), but—spoiler alert—such talk is slander.

Nevertheless, Yang Jian was forced to leave his nephew Chenxiang with his master to train. Mourning his sister and his powers, the demigod makes ends meet by working as a bounty hunter with the crew of his steampunky flying airship (we’re guessing this part is new). Most of them look like pirates, but their loyal panting dog sometimes physically transforms into an adoring teenage girl. Again, odd choice.

Things veer more towards
Lotus Lantern and Creation of the Gods when Yang Jian is hired to find an outlaw who stole an ancient relic. Of course, his target turns out to be the still youthful Chenxiang, who is determined to use it to free his mother from the mountain. That puts both Yang Jian and his nephew in the middle of a cosmic power struggle that encompasses both the immortal and mortal realms. Or something like that.

Muchuan tells a highly convoluted story that gets even harder to follow with each whirling maelstrom the characters jump into. Not surprisingly, it works best when it is most grounded, following the misadventures of hardboiled, half-godlike bounty hunter, who has to fight using conventional martial arts.

Yang Jian makes the same mistake as Shang-Chi. They both establish likable heroes and put them through some nice early fight scenes, but their climaxes are empty noise. Probably the greatest martial arts movie finale was the showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. It had no whirlwinds or cosmic-rays, just two martial arts legends going toe-to-toe. That’s what movies like this should build towards, rather than incomprehensibly swirling magic.

At least Zhao finds a way to incorporate one very cool effect. During the course of the whooshing and swooshing, Yang Jian and Chenxiang get swept up inside a magic scroll, at which point the the animation shifts, replicating the style and color palette of ancient ink-wash painting. It looks amazing, even though the action is a little hard to follow.

Indeed, the animation is consistently impressive, but the story and characterization are a little weak throughout. Probably, the best delineated characters are Yang Jian’s “pirate mates,” who disappear for a long stretch—and only reappear to conveniently save his bacon. Still, a lot of artistry went into the film, like Guo Haowei’s distinctly melancholy harmonica themes.

If you do go to
NGYJ in theaters, do not leave early, because there is a mid-credits stinger featuring a truly iconic character—presumably to tease his appearance in the next New Gods movie, the MCU way. The film needs the kind of energy and attitude this fan favorite can bring to a movie. NGYJ needed to be little less celestial and much grittier. It looks great, but doesn’t satisfy. Earning a mixed-wait-for-streaming review, New Gods: Yang Jian opens tomorrow (1/20) at the IFC Center.