China's long-awaited fantasy epic set for summer release

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 13, 2023
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Distributors have confirmed that filmmaker Wuershan's long-awaited fantasy epic "Creation of the Gods I" will be released on July 20, making it a leading contender in China's competitive summer film season.

A poster for the fantasy epic "Creation of the Gods I." [Image courtesy of Beijing Culture]

Adapted from "Fengshen Yanyi," a classical fantasy novel, the trilogy project was initiated nearly a decade ago, in 2014, with a reported budget of as high as 3 billion yuan ($445 million).

"Fengshen Yanyi," also known as "The Investiture of the Gods," is a popular work of Chinese literature that has since inspired adaptations in various media. The novel blends mythology, folklore, and historical events centered around the brutal reign of King Zhou, the final ruler of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Bewitched by a fox spirit posing as his concubine Daji, he becomes an oppressive tyrant. A battle involving gods, demons, and supernatural beings such as Jiang Ziya and Ne Zha rages to defeat him and help the Ji family establish the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC), culminating in the investiture of these legendary figures as gods.

Wuershan got the idea for making the trilogy in 2001 after watching "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." He aimed to create China's own influential fantasy franchise similar to "The Lord of the Rings" with a demonstrative industrial production process. Despite receiving significant investments from Beijing Culture, several film companies, and investors, and having an incredible team of international cast and crew, including "The Lord of the Rings" producer Barrie M. Osborne, China's powerful producer Bill Kong, veteran actors Fei Xiang (a.k.a. Kris Philips), Li Xuejian, and Huang Bo, renowned scriptwriter Lu Wei, and Oscar-winning art director Timmy Yip, the film's production proved a long and winding road.

The "Creation of the Gods" trilogy started script creation and polishing in 2014, with the director inviting anthropologists, historians, and folklore experts to participate in. The initial production preparation began in 2016, and actors were recruited from around the world. The selected cast underwent 24 weeks of arduous training in performing, fighting, equestrian skills, ancient music, and traditional culture. Meanwhile, hundreds of craftsmen built delicate and lavish set pieces and props. With a massive crew of over 8,000, filming began in 2018, with the plan to shoot three films back-to-back. The shooting of the films wrapped up in 2020. The visual effects were assigned to Wuershan's own newly established visual effects company as well as other experienced companies worldwide. Initially it was intended for release in 2020, but delays occurred due to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the long-awaited project is now seeing the light of day.

However, fantasy genre productions have not always performed well in China. Successful cases include Wuershan's own "Painted Skin: The Resurrection," which became the highest-grossing Chinese film ever in 2012 before being surpassed by Xu Zheng's "Lost in Thailand" later that year. Meanwhile, the animated feature "Ne Zha" took in a phenomenal haul of 5.03 billion yuan in the Chinese market in 2019. But there have been many flops too. For example, Hong Kong director Koan Hui also adapted "Fengshen Yanyi" into "League of Gods" in 2016, but the film failed at the box office due to poor word-of-mouth reviews. In 2018, another ambitious fantasy production, "Asura," spending 750 million yuan, only made a catastrophic 49.8 million yuan in three days before producers announced the abrupt cancellation of the release. With China's film market having undergone many changes and suffered the impact of COVID-19 over recent years, and with audiences' tastes and interests becoming more demanding, the success of such fantasy genre productions at the box office remains to be seen.

The cast and crew of the new fantasy epic "Creation of the Gods I" pose for a group photo on the red carpet at the 25th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), which opened on June 9, 2023. [Photo courtesy of SIFF Organizing Committee]

Besides the novel "Fengshen Yanyi," the trilogy's screenwriters also drew elements and inspiration for their adaptation from a book of folk stories entitled "King Wu's Campaign Against King Zhou." The screenwriting team carefully selected and adapted the original materials, using a narrative structure of three independent films that form a complete story when put together. According to the press release issued on Tuesday, this approach "fills a gap in China's epic mythology genre, creating a magnificent mythical world where humans, immortals, and monsters coexist with contemporary film language, technologies, and interpretation." Furthermore, some story settings and narrative perspectives are innovatively changed from the original books.

Director Wuershan, known for his successful fantasy blockbusters "Mojin: The Lost Legend" (2015) and "Painted Skin: The Resurrection" (2012), explained: " 'The Creation of the Gods' tells of the eternal theme that good will triumph over evil. Our film not only builds a magnificent mythical world but also focuses on profound human characteristics. In the first part of 'Creation of the Gods,' I aim to tell the story from the perspective of young people, who experience the timeless journey of distinguishing truth from falsehood, choosing between good and evil, and ultimately achieving spiritual growth."

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