New Gods: Yang Jian (新神榜: 杨戬) begets the question, is vilification a good way to reinvent a classic folktale? Is it a sensible way?
New Gods: Yang Jian (新神榜: 杨戬) Synopsis
Adapted from the events of The Magic Lotus Lantern, New Gods: Yang Jian depicts the adventures of “Second Son God” Yang Jian after his magical third eye is sealed—the aftermath of an epic confrontation with his younger sister. Reduced to a mere bounty hunter, Yang Jian’s life takes another dramatic turn when he’s hired to capture Chen Xiang, an audacious teenage thief of magical artifacts. The former warrior god soon discovers that the bellicose teen is none other than his long-estranged nephew.
New Gods: Yang Jian was the 2022 summer showpiece of Light Chaser, the Beijing animation studio that produced New Gods: Nezha Reborn, the exemplary White Snake, and 2021’s Green Snake. Before I continue, let me confess with shame that for over two years, I mistakenly assumed New Gods: Yang Jian is the third part of Beijing Enlight’s “Fengshen Cinematic Universe.” In other words, the sequel to Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya.
It’s a silly mistake; the names of the movies immediately made it clear which was which. I guess I got hopelessly confused because so many Chinese studios are currently drawing inspiration from the 16th-century Investiture of the Gods, and while at it, going bonkers with revising the story. Other than Light Chaser and Beijing Enlight, iQIYI has a good number of forgettable Yang Jian-inspired productions in recent years too.
New Gods: Yang Jian is also more of a reimagination of The Magic Lotus Lantern * than a continuation of the events from Investiture. While the Yang Jian, i.e., Erlang Shen here is the version from Investiture, and other characters from Xu Zhonglin’s saga make appearances, the events depicted are entirely from The Magic Lotus Lantern.
This story direction intrigued me. Erlang Shen in most versions of the Lantern myth was quite the obnoxious a******, to say the least; he wasn’t that pleasant a character in Journey to the West too. The short of it, I was really curious as to how Light Chaser would reinvent his character for modern consumption. I was doubly excited because I love what Light Chaser did with Nezha in 2021.
My reaction after watching: Well, I think the studio did a praiseworthy job of making Yang Jian likeable, he’s as heroic and as charismatic as it gets in this space cowboy-like adventure. On the other hand, this came at the cost of the story becoming …
But, no, let me first go through the good bits of this show. Without a doubt, New Gods: Yang Jian is visually resplendent, one of the best-looking Chinese animated movies to date. Every character is gorgeously conceptualised and animated, with the overall ambience more of a Western cowboy adventure than a Chinese fairy tale. The bold inclusion of sci-fi and steampunk elements also creates a Chinese mythical world that is with few equals in the cinematic world—a dreamy realm that’s even more fascinating than the dystopian Donghai city in Nezha Reborn. This is a world that seems to promise secrets at every turn. This is also one that appears cheerfully zealous to challenge all preconceptions of Asian mythology that we might have.
The magical combats, the energetic showpieces of this incredible realm, are equally superb. I wouldn’t say they are exemplary, but they certainly stand above the bewildering chaos that plagues too many Chinese fantasy productions nowadays, animated or live-action. Needless to say, many confrontations also enthusiastically embrace the boundless creative potential present with the many magical artifacts presented in Investiture and Lantern. As a huge fan of these unearthly weapons, seeing how each was reinvented endlessly thrilled me.
Coming to the story proper, for over an hour, the movie marches confidently towards a twist of sorts, one that’s hinted at right from the start. The twist is then reasonably delivered and explained. As in, you wouldn’t be baffled even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the various classic myths involving Yang Jian.
Yup, it’s a twist that makes sense. One that isn’t rushed too. But I’d be lying if I say I enjoyed it. Or find it sensible.
Put it this way, I understand the need to heavily rewrite the Lantern myth. As I highlighted, Yang Jian is the antagonist in almost all versions of this classic folktale. The folktale flows with many traditional gender prejudices too. A modern movie with the god as the hero simply cannot completely follow the original developments.
That said, is a conspiracy the best way to do this rewriting with? Moreover, certain characters from Investiture are meaninglessly vilified to facilitate this revisionist take. These characters did not appear in any version of The Magical Lotus Lantern. Frankly, they were minor characters in Investiture too.
It’s like, the revised ending just feels so Miǎnqiáng, or “forced,” as we’d say in Mandarin. A lame twist for the sake of a twist. For some viewers, it could even be bizarre. I can’t fully explain this without giving the twist away, so I’ll just highlight that Jinxia isn’t the Chinese paradise. In Investiture or any other Chinese legend, it was but a dàochǎng, or a cultivation dojo. It’s just bizarre that it receives so much importance in this rewriting, especially with the movie ultimately showing so little of it.
Repeat: A twist for the sake of a twist. Or should I say, a twist for the sake of a revision.
The entire viewing experience is dragged down. I felt it so wasted the creativity exhibited with the visuals too. Honestly, had the movie not looked fabulous right to the final moments, I would have rated it lower.
* The Magic Lotus Lantern is known in Chinese as Bǎo Lián Dēng (宝莲灯). Without going into details, it’s one of several classic Chinese myths about a forbidden romance between a fairy and a mortal, and the awful consequences that followed.
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