‘New Gods: Yang Jian’ Aims to Bring Chinese Folklore and Animation Into the Spotlight

What do you do when you find out those you’ve trusted the most were never really who you believed them to be? Do you continue to walk by their sides, or do you change your path and go against them? In New Gods: Yang Jian, the former God of War has to make this tough decision when unexpected occurrences arise, old rivals become companions, and old friends become enemies.

The story revolves around Yang Jian, or Erlang Shen, who went from riches to rags after he imprisoned his sister underneath a mountain. The God-turned-bounty hunter is hired by a mystery dancer to embark on a mysterious quest, during which he reunites with his long-lost nephew Chenxiang. Feeling abandoned by his uncle, Chenxiang is working to undo Yang Jian’s work, trying to retrieve a magical lotus lantern to free his mother. Meanwhile, Yang Jian does his best to maintain balance of the worlds, working hard through battle after battle, even if it comes at a costly price.

The film may not have the most promising premise, with a predictable storyline that draws out a bit too long, and characters with little development, but the stunning visuals are a consolation for the lacking plot. With 3D depictions of beautiful landscapes and mythical beings who balance elements of fantasy and reality, the film was certainly animated with the big screen in mind. Ahead of the film’s U.S. theater release, APA spoke with film director Zhao Ji and co-founder and president of Light Chaser Animation, and producer of the film Yu Zhou about the time and effort that went into creating this visual masterpiece, what this film means to each of them, and more.

New Gods is a film series that started in 2019 with the release of New Gods: Nezha Reborn. Aiming to re-tell Chinese folklore with a modern perspective, Zhao Ji and Yu Zhou agreed their films were made with the Chinese audience in mind, but that they carry a universal message for all audiences to enjoy. “The Chinese audience is already familiar with the characters based on the original stories, so they will see a different version of a hero they know. Yang Jian is the God of War, a strong hero who never loses, but we created a more human side of him,” Zhao Ji shared. “It reminds me of Coco. When your family members pass away, they don’t actually die, as they’re there in spirit. In Yang Jian, it’s just like that, too. It’s a universal theme: loving family and the world, and keeping the peace and happiness. We hope people can understand and be touched by these feelings and this story no matter where they are,” finished Yu Zhou. What inspired this series of films was the desire to share their own stories and experiences in a way that’s commonly known enough to draw attention, but also share a side to these characters that’s never been seen before. “We were trying to choose the most famous [gods] for the audience. Nezha is probably the most famous, and Yang Jian is second. Yang Jian also has never really been mentioned as the main character before. He’s always been the supporting character on the side as the God of War who always has a poker face, but I don’t think he’s like that. I think his character has his story to tell, too. He’s half human, half god, so he must also have a human side and experiences. That’s why we created the first human Yang Jian.”

Originally working as an editor and filmmaker with live action movies, Zhao Ji made the switch over to animated movies with White Snake, also released under Light Chaser Animation. “From my experience, I think animation is more creative, because you can create what’s not really happening. It’s more fun,” he said in regards to the limitless options that comes with animating a story. Four years has passed since the release of White Snake, and both Zhao Ji and Yu Zhou said each film from White Snake up until New Gods: Yang Jian has been a learning experience. “During White Snake, I was trying to adapt, to learn how to be a director. For Yang Jian, we combined a Chinese painting style with technology and some punk styles, so visual-wise, it was a totally different risk and adventure. I’m quite confident now with what I already know, but I also found I have a lot of things I don’t know.” Building upon the sentiment of always having more to learn and grow, Yu Zhou mentioned with a laugh that each film surpasses the previous. “If you ask which film is the best, it’s a bit diplomatic, but we all believe it will be the next one.”

Although the Chinese animation industry is quite young, these two creatives are hoping to create a film series that can capture the audience, with Yang Jian presenting their own spin on the steampunk style and genre. “Chinese [people] can have our own punk genre, because punk is [about] the spirit and visual style. Just because you haven’t seen a lot of Chinese punk movies, doesn’t mean Chinese culture cannot be punk, especially with heroes like in New Gods. I think it’s fun to combine what we learned from the Western culture, and mix it with our own culture to create a movie like what we can see as the new generation of Chinese heroes.” Thinking harder about the origins of steampunk and how it can be used to create stories like Yang Jian, Zhao Ji ultimately decided the best term to describe the two New Gods films is silkpunk, a term coined by Ken Liu to describe a blend of sci-fi and fantasy inspired not by Victorian-era steam-powered technology, but by East Asian antiquity.

Hoping films like this can showcase the essence of traditional Chinese culture through a modern perspective, Zhao Ji and Yu Zhou approached it by updating aspects of Chinese mythology, like how gods fly in the sky. “[Old shows] always imagined people flying from one place to another standing on a cloud. I think during that time, airplanes in China were very few, and people didn’t see a lot of them. They couldn’t imagine that there was an aircraft flying from one place to another,” said Zhao Ji. Yu Zhou shared that the portrayal of gods flying on clouds may be outdated, so it’s important to share a new view that reflects how advanced modern technology has become. “For every generation, the creators, filmmakers, and artists should make things from their own experiences,” concluded Zhao Ji.

New Gods: Yang Jian will be released in U.S. theatres on January 20, 2023.

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