Like “Ne Zha” — 2019’s monumental computer-animated box office hit — similarly spectacular CG epic “Jiang Ziya” concludes with nearly 10 minutes of credits: a dense scroll of names amounting to a virtual army of animators, punctuated by extra scenes and teasers for upcoming projects from Chinese distributor Beijing Enlight Pictures. That’s how fans first learned of this film’s existence: Adopting a strategy that has served Marvel well at the movies, “Ne Zha” touted the arrival of “Jiang Ziya” in its last few minutes, sparking a wave of excitement among fans, and now in turn, this follow-up wraps with promises that there’s a greater “Fengshen Cinematic Universe” afoot.
Playing fast and loose with classic Chinese literature, both films draw their lead characters from the 16th-century novel “Fengshen Yanyi” (aka “Investiture of the Gods”) and concern the meddling by immortals and demons in the affairs of men more than a thousand years B.C. (or 3,000 years Before Now). But contrary to Marvel, the tone — and to some extent, the look — of the two movies is quite different. Loaded with slapsticky humor and culturally specific in-jokes, “Ne Zha” was, well, cartoony, featuring candy-colorful characters with big eyes and rounded edges, constantly bouncing off the walls with energy. Here, the title character is tall and slender, like Ralph Bakshi’s Gandalf or any number of video-game heroes, with angular features and a kind of inner calm that’s practically antithetical to Ne Zha’s spastic sense of mischief.
This parallel tale feels more respectful, composed and rendered in such a way that nearly every frame (certainly a great many of its wide shots) might be considered artful — as in the sunset-tinged sight of Jiang Ziya, framed by wheat fields, his back to the “camera,” facing the Ruins of Return. Maxfield Parrish, meet your match. Directors Teng Cheng and Li Wei have dedicated serious attention to creating a stunning dramatic atmosphere for a story that, truth be told, is still plenty confusing to non-Chinese audiences.
A staple of Chinese legend, Jiang Ziya is well-known to locals as the wise nobleman instrumental in unseating Emperor Zhou of the Shang dynasty and executing his duplicitous consort, Daji (Sylvia Wong), a nine-tailed Fox Demon in disguise. That’s really all the context audiences need to know in advance — which is a relief, since the movie bombards them with backstory up front, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Voiced by Zheng Xi, Jiang Ziya appears younger than he does in most depictions, which seems fair for the film’s purposes, given that “Jiang Ziya” reconceives this pensive fisher as an action figure of sorts. His design suggests a flattering caricature of late-career Keanu Reeves, with long bangs split down the center, sharp nose and cheekbones and a gaze intently fixed on some far-off horizon.
With these two films, the team at Coloroom (Enlight’s in-house animation studio) have demonstrated that Chinese folklore can serve a similar function for their audiences that comic-book favorites do for Americans: Moviegoers have a rough idea of the characters’ exploits going in, which gives filmmakers enormous latitude to retell their stories as bombastically as they please. Unencumbered by the physical limitations of mere mortals, their protagonists offer a kind of elaborate wish fulfillment, which CGI is uniquely suited to depicting.
Following a gorgeous hand-drawn prologue, wherein Jiang Ziya vanquishes the nine-tailed Fox Demon in the “Great War,” the film puts the character on the path to becoming the leader of all gods. But in a clear echo of “Ne Zha,” the film makes the case that true heroes challenge the fate that’s expected of them and make their own way. Ne Zha was a demon turned good, whereas Jiang Ziya is already good but must defy the gods in order to free humankind from the heavenly intrusion (“divine protection,” they call it) that has been the source of so much strife. In the film, only Jiang Ziya is so courageous as to question their guidance.
Since Chinese audiences associate Jiang Ziya with the execution of the dangerous Daji, the film takes a fresh approach from the outset by introducing doubt into this historic duty. Just as he is about to strike down the Fox Demon, Jiang Ziya glimpses an innocent spirit within her — a wide-eyed young woman of indeterminate identity — and spares Daji. Flash forward a decade, and this girl, Jiu (Yang Ning), shows up at a wintry tavern where Jiang Ziya is about to buy a map to the remote Mount Youdu. In a series of nimble moves, she steals the document and makes her escape, setting off a quest in the direction of this hallowed mountain — a place where black flowers bloom, and that holds the key to who she is.
For years, people have been distrustful of Jiu on account of her fox ears, suspecting her of being a demon like Daji, but Jiang Ziya gives her the benefit of the doubt and agrees to help Jiu find her father. (They’re accompanied by a cute, Pokémon-looking creature called Four-Alike who perches on Jiang Ziya’s shoulder like some kind of albino squirrel before transforming into a majestic phosphorescent stag when the time is right.) The group, trailed by the suspicious Shen Gongbao (Tute Hameng), arrives at Mount Youdu quite early in the film, and there begins a nearly 40-minute battle with Daji — essentially a rematch of the Great War — with interference by the gods.
As in other Chinese fantasy movies, the rules won’t necessarily be clear to Western minds (especially as regards reincarnation in a film where beloved characters die in the fight), although no less so than your typical Hollywood superhero saga. My advice is to go with it. American animated films tend to follow a fairly predictable formula; this one mixes it up by upending what Chinese audiences thought they knew about the confrontation between Jiang Ziya and Daji — and the twist regarding Jiu’s identity is a good one.
Daji makes for a breathtaking villain. Hidden behind an opera mask, this seductive character assumes the form of an elaborate demon. She’s less fox-like than China’s answer to Maleficent (when she assumes fearsome dragon form at the end of “Sleeping Beauty”) but blood red instead of black, and armed with nine powerful tails that deliver pile-driver blows to whomever she’s fighting. It’s hard not to be impressed by this reimagining of the infamous Fox Demon, seen in silhouette against the film’s various widescreen panoramas, and the team pushes the color palette to accentuate the contrast: Jiang Ziya glows ghostly blue against jewel-tone skies, while Daji rages flaming red. They fight first against an indigo forest laced with strands of red thread, and later, before the Ruins of Return and above the Stairway to Heaven — settings that viewers won’t soon forget.
And when it’s over, the film reminds audiences to stay for the end credits. The first bonus scene is set amid Chinese New Year festivities (when the film was originally supposed to open, had COVID not shuttered cinemas in January), as Ne Zha drops in to celebrate the holiday with Jiang Ziya. This amusing vignette confirms what audiences had already suspected: Both characters belong to the same narrative universe. And they should expect more where these two came from.