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“Jiang Ziya,” “Ne Zha” and How Not to Make an Expanded Cinematic Universe

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Hopes for a cinematic universe based around the source material for China’s second highest grossing film ever, Ne Zha, seem to have sputtered out over the country’s ongoing week-long national holiday.

With the release of Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification — the darker, less kid-friendly spiritual successor to Ne Zha — online critics and audiences have taken to the internet to voice their disappointment with the follow-up to China’s most-talked about film of 2019.

The recent history of China’s blockbuster cinema offerings has been patchy to say the least. While patriotic fare has become the norm in the country, film buffs remain hopeful of significant global breakthrough despite the increasingly cramped content constraints placed on the industry. Alas, the recent filmic landscape in China is awash with tales of short-lived movie fads, such as the unfortunate story of the mini-sci-fi boom that followed The Wandering Earth, and seemingly fell apart with Shanghai Fortress.

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The country’s hopes for a crossover hit with animation were seen in the authorities’ decision to put Ne Zha, an animated story about a young demon taken from 16th century novel Investiture of the Gods, forward for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. While the film broke records in China, becoming the country’s highest grossing animated film and second highest grossing film ever, it failed to make much of an impact in other parts of the world, taking in a little under 7 million USD (as opposed to the 720 million USD it made in China). It also failed to make the Oscars short-list.

These hopes were subsequently put on the shoulders of Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification, which has racked up a record of its own in China, beating out Ne Zha, to become the highest one-day box office earning animation in the country after pulling in 53 million USD on October 1, China’s National Day. For context, that’s close to the 55 million USD that Finding Dory took in the US on its first Friday in theaters there in 2016 (Incredibles 2 is top of the one-day box office charts in the US for an animated movie, taking 71 million USD on its first Saturday showing).

Yet behind the numbers are some consistently poor reviews — and a growing sense that while Jiang Ziya isn’t as big a disaster as Shanghai Fortress, it may have scuppered the building of a cinematic universe before it’s really begun.

An MCU with Chinese Characteristics? 

Both Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya are taken from 16th century novel Investiture of the Gods, or 封神演义 Fengshen Yanyi as it is known in Chinese. The stories in Investiture revolve around the fall of the Shang Dynasty and the rise of the Zhou Dynasty around 1000 BCE, and feature a bunch of myths, deities and popular legends.

The idea of Investiture of the Gods giving shape to an expanded “Fengshen Universe” on par with Marvel’s MCU has been touted by a variety of media outlets since the release of Ne Zha in 2019. The release of Jiang Ziya has therefore come with plenty of hype and has had many moviegoers excited about the possibility of a long-running series of uniquely Chinese stories.

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However, disappointingly, much of the discourse surrounding Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification since the release of the film has been negative, with viewers leaving cinemas around the country dazzled by the movie’s animation and action sequences, but confused by its character development and the complexity of the overall story.

Part of the issue, some feel, is the pace at which it followed Ne Zha (which took six years to make). The lack of clarity over some aspects of the story, including the backstory of the titular army commander Jiang Ziya and his deific status have left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths, as they’re perceived as being shoddily developed.

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How “Ne Zha”, a Revamped Tale from Chinese Mythology, Became the Country’s Biggest-Ever Animated Movie

One user on Chinese ratings site Douban gave the film three stars out of five, writing: “The script can be said to be barely established, almost ruining the exquisite production and theme presentation […] It is not a bad film, but my expectations for it go far beyond that. If the script was more solid, with this picture and theme, its status and influence could be immeasurable! I deeply regret [going to watch] this film!”

Jiang Ziya currently holds a rating of 7 out of 10 on that website, as opposed to Ne Zha‘s 8.4 out of 10, with many noting the decline in quality between the two films.

Now, with a spate of related films being announced, discussions around the establishment of a Fengshen Universe have turned from excitement to fatigued disappointment, along with confusion about where this universe starts and ends.

The Clone Wars

Chinese cinema has been guilty of releasing or planning multiple adaptations of particularly popular stories at the same time — effectively over-mining the same source material. This was seen earlier this year as Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan competed with multiple Chinese-made adaptations of the same story, a phenomenon that was at least partly responsible for stirring debate and heightening criticism of the quality of that Disney-made film in the country. Similarly, proposed adaptations of Liu Cixin’s epic science fiction trilogy The Three Body Problem have caused confusion and, in some cases, consternation.

One recent example of Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya makers Enlight Media adding fuel to this thematic fire was the release of a bizarre musical collaboration between Jiang Ziya, Ne Zha, Ao Bing (a main character in Ne Zha), and Sun Wukong (aka The Monkey King). Sun Wukong doesn’t appear directly in Investiture of the Gods, but rather another 16th century epic novel, Journey to the West (and has been the victim of multiple disappointing screen renderings himself).

This combination of heroic characters has confused viewers and muddled the idea of the Fengshen Universe, creating a cluttered field of crossovers and a lack of clarity as to which characters can properly be associated with one another.

Another source of confusion as to which movies actually comprise the so-called Fengshen Universe are the multiple highly-anticipated adaptations of the stories in Investiture of the Gods concurrently in the works.

Just recently, an animated film dealing with the story of Erlang — who appeared in both Investiture of the Gods and Journey to the West and is best known as the greatest warrior of heaven who is ordered to journey to Earth to subdue The Monkey King in the latter collection of stories.

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The film, which has the English name God of Three Eyes, is set for a release in 2021 (you can watch an early preview trailer below). While rumors abounded online that the Erlang movie would be part of the Fengshen Universe, along with Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya, the production company behind the film were forced to clarify that the films will not be within the same family.

And then there’s Inner Mongolian director Wuershan’s adaption of the story for his live action Fengshen Trilogy. He sits at the helm of what is seen as the most ambitious film project in Chinese film history. Requiring a huge cast of actors to commit to two full years of filming, the first 6 months were solely dedicated to actors learning horseback riding, martial arts, archery, drumming, ancient Chinese etiquette and more. With a planned overall budget of 445 million USD, the scale of the film is simply huge. Unsurprisingly, it’s been referred to as China’s answer to Lord of the Rings. 

With the first in that trilogy set for a release during Spring Festival in 2021 after its originally-scheduled release this summer was pushed back, the Fengshen Trilogy trailer (watch below) has 5.3 million views on microblogging platform Weibo, demonstrating the sense of anticipation.

The top comment? “Only 30 seconds? Could you be a little more generous……” 

Endgame

As production companies look to feed (and feed off of) the recent cinematic mania surrounding the adaptation of mythological stories such as Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods, viewers are justifiably confused as to the overall direction of these movies.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing with such projects is that there is genuinely some interesting source material to work with, not to mention some outstanding talent. The Enlight Media subsidiary most responsible for Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya is Coloroom Pictures, for example, who have previously given us the Studio Ghibli-inspired hit Big Fish and Begonia.

While it may be harsh to write Enlight’s animated Fengshen Universe off after just the second film, the lukewarm reception for Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification may well mean that hopes for the tales now turn to Spring Festival 2021 and Wuershan’s ambitious live action take.

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As for an expanded cinematic universe that China can call its own, that mantle looks increasingly to be assumed by Liu Cixin’s sci-fi tales (the main production company adapting his stories is actually called Three-Body Universe). Though with a Netflix Three-Body Problem TV series in the works, the possibility that it’ll fall victim to many of the issues outlined above remains worryingly distinct.

Additional reporting by Lakshmi Iyengar

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He once correctly guessed all 151 original Pokemon in seven minutes for an online quiz.