New Chinese animated film reimagines mythological icon

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 25, 2022
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The animator Zhao Ji told that his latest film, "New Gods: Yang Jian," is a breakthrough in animation production, and he hopes the world can see it and witness Chinese culture.

Director Zhao Ji promotes "New Gods: Yang Jian" at its premiere in Beijing, Aug. 18, 2022. [Photo courtesy of Table Film]

Yang Jian, also known as Erlang Shen, is a household mythological figure in Chinese legends. For centuries, stories about the powerful three-eye celestial being, the son of a sister of the heavenly ruler, the Jade Emperor, have been retold in folklore and classic fantasy literature. The figure features in "Journey to the West" and "The Investiture of the Gods," and various TV series and films in modern history, like Shanghai Animation Film Studio's 1999 animated blockbuster, "Lotus Lantern."

"New Gods: Yang Jian" pays homage to previous classics such as "Lotus Lantern.” However, the director and his team added some fresh twists to the mythic icon. For example, Yang is traditionally a villain; the film recasts him as a handsome superhero safeguarding the world's peace.

As a bounty hunter, Yang tries to stop his teenage nephew Liu Chenxiang from freeing his mother from Huashan Mountain, but ultimately helps him when he discovers a horrifying conspiracy. Coincidentally enough, according to the legend, Yang also releases his mother under another mountain, jailed by the Jade Emperor.

Liu Chenxiang and Yang Jian are unrelated in ancient Chinese mythology. But the film "Lotus Lantern" connected the two. Zhao found this exciting and looked through old stories in his research to find out how they both broke open a mountain to rescue their mothers. "I started thinking, why do they both do that?"

The desire to find a new perspective on the legend was an essential inspiration for the film, claimed Zhao. In this way, the film is similar to his previous work, "White Snake," released in 2019, in which he tried to answer why the average guy Xu Xian was loved so much by a white snake spirit.

Before "New Gods: Yang Jian," there was "New Gods: Nezha Reborn." However Yang's story is not a sequel but a new installment in the "New Gods" Universe. Many visual styles are retained, including the cyberpunk designs and stunningly beautiful reimagination of traditional Chinese architecture. "Technology is always evolving, so there indeed are new technology iterations. When I saw what we have done with 'Yang Jian' and went back to see 'White Snake,' I saw clear improvements, such as the imagery's detail, precision, and high-definition."

"I think this is also the characteristics and charm of animation that I love. It can progress with our technology, and then we have the opportunity to do higher quality and larger scale productions," he added. 

One of the film's highlights, and most challenging scenes to shoot, is a flying dance by immortals, inspired by the famous Dunhuang mural at the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gansu province. The crew went to Dunhuang and many other cultural relics to get references and inspiration from ancient Chinese culture. The dance of Dunhuang Apsaras is performed on the ground by real dancers, so they had to imagine how the dancers would perform in the air.

Another highlight is at the end of the film, where a Taichi Diagram scroll is presented in Chinese ink and wash painting style, which is also a creative and stunning visual effect, he noted.  

Zhao hoped international audiences could see his films. "I think there's no cultural gap for animated films. But we have to do our job well first," he said, remembering that "White Snake" and "New Gods: Nezha Reborn" received positive feedback from overseas. 

A poster for "New Gods: Yang Jian." [Image courtesy of Light Chaser Animation]

Zhao said he feels responsible for presenting true Chinese stories and culture to the world. "I think only Chinese animators can understand and make decent Chinese stories because we know and understand the root source of our culture since we grew up with it. This is what I feel fortunate for. And we are in the process of growing and learning, and the Chinese animation industry is still young. I have confidence we can do better and better in the future."

Zhao watched many Japanese and American cartoons in childhood, so he is determined to boost Chinese animation. "In the past, our technologies were far behind, and there were only a few Chinese animations that impressed me when I was a kid. Now we are catching up with the world. I hope the next generation will mainly watch Chinese animations when growing up."

The director can rest assured of his vision and faith. "New Gods: Yang Jian" landed on the Chinese market on Aug. 19, the same day as the popular Hollywood animated film "Minions: The Rise of Gru," and it beat the little yellow creatures at the box office. "Yang Jian" has grossed more than 134 million yuan in three days over the last weekend and become a new box office champion this summer. 

After initiating the "New Gods" and "White Snake" franchises, now Light Chaser Animation has a new project in the pipeline for the 2023 release, involving ancient poet Li Bai and war in Tang Dynasty. "It is a cultural project and will have a totally different style from our previous works and be unlike anything on the market, " Zhao revealed. 

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