Nezha myth retold in Chinese cyberpunk style

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, February 8, 2021

Depicted as a child deity with three heads and six arms, Nezha is a famous mythological figure in China, spawning literary works, films, TV series and animated titles.

As the latest retelling of the household character, the animated feature New Gods: Nezha Reborn is scheduled to hit domestic theaters on the first day of Spring Festival, Feb 12.

Unlike previous works – which mostly set Ne Zha's story in ancient China -- the new film occurs in a fictional time, around 3,000 years after the ending of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Fengshen Yanyi, or The Investiture of the Gods, an influential work which has laid out the blueprint for most Nezha-themed movies and TV dramas.

"Nezha is a like a superhero idol. Most of us are familiar with his story, so our top challenge was to seek a new way to retell this household tale," director Zhao Ji said.

A graduate of digital filmmaking from the University of California in Los Angeles, Zhao shot to fame after co-directing Light Chaser Animation's hit White Snake.

Inspired by household folklore about two snake spirits, the White Snake film, made in association with Warner Brothers, has earned 470 million yuan ($72.8 million) at the box office and accumulated 550 million "clicks" from online subscribers.

In early 2016, Zhao teamed up with director Amp Wong to work on White Snake. But in keeping with Light Chaser's timeline — one new film each year — Zhao also started brainstorming on Nezha.

In the original Ming Dynasty story, Nezha is fictionalized as a naughty child raised in a general's family. After slaughtering a dragon in the raging East Sea, the dragon's father gathers powerful fellow dragon kings to seek revenge, forcing the child to commit suicide. But Nezha's master resurrects him, transforming him into a deity with multiple heads and arms to ride on two wheels set ablaze.

The first script of Nezha Reborn is also set in ancient China, absorbing a lot of elements from the original story. But an ancient China-set portion based on a key plot point from the 1979 popular animated film Prince Nezha's Triumph Against Dragon King is remade in the new film as a salute to the 1970s classic.

However, Zhao says he felt such a retelling would be stereotypical.

"I want to find something to make me excited," the director said, describing himself as a "rebellious and wild" person.

With inspirations from the punk subculture of the West and the typical Shanghai housing of the 1930s, the script was re-written as set in the fictional Donghai (East Sea), a city struggling with severe tension between rich and poor.

Li Yunxiang, a young motorcycling enthusiast, occasionally becomes the new host of Nezha's primordial spirit. With the superpower awakened deep in his body, Li accepts his responsibility to stop a new threat caused by Nezha's thousands-years-long foe, the dragon, reincarnated as a water tycoon.

"Li possess the superpower by accident. One of the core messages that we want to convey through the film is about how an ordinary person could balance his personal life and a given duty when he is suddenly a hero," Zhao said.

An advanced screening in January released an approximately 20-minute clip, impressing audiences with stunning special-effects shots.

Over 1,300 days, nearly 1,000 artists have worked on animating 162 roles, with each taking around 360 days to finish. When the workload reached its peak, around 2,100 computers were put to use for rendering.

In the film's 2,103 shots, special-effect scenes account for up to 1,838 shots, or 87.4 percent of the entire runtime.

Recalling his career beginnings as a live-action film editor, Zhao said he has discovered his passion for animated, propelling him to take up work in Light Chaser since 2013.

In accordance with the expansion of the Chinese film industry, domestic animation -- once believed to be a niche market for children and teenagers -- have achieved remarkable progress in recent years.

"I believe China's homegrown animation industry will have a promising future," Zhao said.

Zhao cites the studio's animated films -- ranging from Little Door Gods to Cats and Peachtopia and White Snake-- as works that showcase the studio's yearslong pursuit to employ state-of-art animation techniques to tell stories rooted in Chinese culture and history.

"That is the top draw for me. Light Chaser has given young talent a lot of freedom to realize their dreams," he added.

As Spring Festival approaches, the film has become one of the most anticipated blockbusters, with a lot of netizens saying they are looking forward to seeing the film.

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