It always amazes me how fantastic looking animated films have become. What CGI is accomplishing these days and over the last 25 years is an astonishing achievement. The brilliant color and depth these films display create lavish landscapes and a wide range of facial expressions. It was early on in Jiang Ziya that I was considering its beauty. And how now it’s the second film from Beijing Enlight Studios with this admirable quality.
Teng Cheng and Li Wei’s Jiang Ziya is the next film from the studio that brought us Ne Zha just over a year ago. Ne Zha, about a demon orb that creates a young boy who chooses to decide his own fate, went on to crush the Chinese box office. It became the highest grossing Chinese animated film of all time and the third highest grossing Chinese movie ever made, grossing half a billion dollars domestically before it even made its way to America.
Jiang Ziya begins with a tale of Jiang Ziya’s heroic conquest to capture Nine Tailed Fox Devil. During the uprising of Emperor Zhou in the final years of the Shang dynasty, Nine Tailed disguises herself as Zhou’s consort. This allows Nine Tailed to take over the government and cause chaos within the three realms. Jiang Ziya, being the first mortal to climb the Stairway to Heaven and allowed to convene with the gods of Jinxu Hall, returns victorious from overthrowing Zhou. He is now expected to become leader of the gods barring one more, small task.
The gods tell Jiang to achieve his new status and lead his disciples he must execute Nine Tailed Fox Devil. Jiang gears up to fulfill his destiny, but Nine Tailed gets inside his head. She begins to sew doubt in the mind of Jiang, showing him a young girl that’s bound inside of her. Nine Tailed tells Jiang, if you kill me you also kill the girl.
When Jiang sees the girl ask for help from inside the Nine Tailed Fox Devil, he hesitates with his execution. This merely banishes Nine Tailed from her binding and Jiang, defying the gods, will go back to Earth realm. For his transgression in not finishing the job, the gods banish him as well. Jiang casts off his immortality. Once he can reconcile his vision of the girl as being a Nine Tailed trick, then he will be allowed back into Jinxu Hall.
The old battlefield of Beihai is where the sinners of the Shang dynasty have been banished. Most of those sinners were put there by Jiang Ziya himself. His friend Shen Gongbao and a little dog-like mythical creature named Four-Alike have joined him for his punishment. As Jiang commits to finding the truth he makes his way into a watering hole, seemingly the only place in the icy cold desert with any people.
First impressions of this bar seem very reminiscent of the Star Wars cantina. That includes it being heavy with various villains and dregs. Things quickly go topsy-turvy, as they typically do in these film locations, when an out of place traveler walks into the place. Demanding the sale of a map that will take her to Mount Youdu, the store owner attempts to swindle the traveler. This results in the movie’s first (and certainly not its last) stylistic battle sequence. The traveler making a mess of the place by pulling some Aladdin-like thievery.
Jiang gets a good look at the traveler and determines it’s the girl from Jinxu Hall under Fox Tailed’s possession. What’s more, the scarf she’s wearing falls off revealing fox ears too. Like Ne Zha, Jiang Ziya presents an eagerly xenophobic society afraid of what it doesn’t understand. Assuming fox girl to be in league with the Nine Tailed Fox Devil the same way the villagers in Ne Zha assume him to be completely demonic.
Fox Girl rushes out of the bar and Jiang chases her. When he finally catches up to her, the spirit of Nine Tailed attacks her. With little trust between them, Jiang offers to accompany the girl. Together they travel to Mount Youdu in her quest to find her father.
The film has some gorgeous moments in it, both in its immense scenery, mythical creatures, and its character relations. In a way its relationships remind me of that in Toy Story. Everyone looking out for one another even when characters are going through conflicts. Jiang and the Fox Girl (Jiu) form a wonderful connection that is relatable and feels genuine.
One of the best themes in Jiang Ziya is the rebuttal to Lieutenant Spock’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan declaration. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Spock’s words are endearing and convey his deep love and respect for his crew. Spock then sacrifices himself in order to save everyone else. Jiang Ziya’s gods warp the idea into “a god must sacrifice one life to save all lives.” It’s a much different statement when you’re not sacrificing your own life. Zhia’s response to the gods, “If I can’t save one life, how can I save all lives?”
The true social resonance of this statement has never been clearer than seeing a mortal say it to a god. And with how the film ends, proving change is possible if you can stand up for the justice of just one life. Because one life does make a difference. “Make your own way and become a true god.”
Jiang Ziya (aka Legend of Deification) was due to release back in January in China, to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic the feature became continually postponed. The long-awaited next chapter in the Fengshen Cinematic Universe will now be releasing on October 1st, this time to coincide with the lunar new year.
You’re probably asking yourself, “what is the FCU?” In 2015, Beijing Enlight Pictures was formed out of a bunch of smaller production companies with the idea of storytelling based on Chinese mythology. They released a film called Monkey King: Hero is Back and become a hit. Next came Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya. Enlight looks to tell the stories of the Fengshen Yanyi or Investiture of the Gods. These stories will eventually connect and crossover, just like in Marvel’s cinematic universe.
What I think I really appreciate about both Jiang Ziya and Ne Zha is that they’re the kind of movies for tween boys that have outgrown The Incredibles but aren’t ready to crossover into Avengers films yet. The sort of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers years I once knew at that age. And I’m not saying that girls won’t enjoy these films too. What I am saying is with my niece, the last handful of years or so have been unrelentingly Frozen-centric. It’s nice to see animation with an inclination toward the other side of the age group.
Jiang Ziya gets off to a bit of a rocky start in terms of storytelling confluence. Quickly enough, it finds its footing and fleshes itself out . As this film does find its roots in mythical theology, there are times when heaven can feel a bit preachy. Luckily this isn’t for long and it’s mostly just to setup the storytelling. Ultimately, I did not find Jiang Ziya to be quite as good as Ne Zha, but it’s still relatively close. The adventure is fun, the animation and design is beautiful and the message is powerful. I can even confess that the last frames of the film brought the kind of heartful happiness that one usually reserves for Pixar films.
There’s also an extremely hilarious mid-credit short where Ne Zha and his family come to visit Jiang Ziya for dinner. I howled through it. The short’s message of “We’re all in this together” touches upon what everyone keeps saying but not everyone always considers. Everyone in the world has suffered in some way shape or form this year and we need to continue to look out for one another.
What we have with Beijing Enlight Studios is a new, very creative, animation studio that is doing a fantastic job so far. In Jiang Ziya’s final post-credit scene, the audience gets a first glimpse at Tian Xiaopeng’s upcoming Deep Sea. The two films I’ve now seen in this cinematic universe have been nothing short of wholly enjoyable. I will likely be seeking out The Monkey King shortly. Plus, given the few glimpses I’ve now seen, I highly anticipate Deep Sea as well.