New Gods: Yang Jian hits U.S. theaters on Jan. 20, 2023.
Ji Zhao’s New Gods: Nezha Reborn was one of the best cinematic surprises of 2021, a gorgeously animated retelling of a Chinese myth featuring big emotional beats and the vibe of John Wick. New Gods: Yang Jian, the second film in Light Chaser Animation’s New Gods series, had a big debut in mainland China last year, but it’s likely to be a harder sell with audiences less familiar with the dense source material.
In many ways, the New Gods series faces the same problems as an American superhero movie: how to tell an action-packed story that will satisfy viewers who are already familiar with its larger-than-life heroes and villains without losing those who are coming in cold. Nezha’s story was grounded through stakes, with the titular hero working to take down a corrupt dragon crime boss, but Yang Jian makes the mistake of introducing far too many characters and confusing twists.
A blend of the Tang dynasty fairy tale The Magic Lotus Lantern and the 16th century Chinese novel Investiture of the Gods, Yang Jiang is set 13 years after the eponymous deity sealed his sister beneath a mountain and lost most of his powers in the process. He’s now scraping by as the leader of a crew of bounty hunters that can barely keep their ship in the air. The setup feels extremely like Cowboy Bebop, down to Yang Jiang’s faithful hound Xiaotian being reimagined as a shapeshifter who alternates between the form of a dog and manic girl, effectively becoming a fusion of Radical Edward and Ein.
But the hard luck ensemble set up is short lived as the film pivots into a fantasy noir, with a mysterious client tasking Yang Jiang with catching a thief. Several twists and betrayals in, it’s impossible to grasp why he was actually hired except that the genre’s tropes demand the down-on-his-luck protagonist be recruited by a beautiful and untrustworthy woman.
Yang Jiang’s crew fades into the background to make way for a parade of other characters tied to his myths. Some, like the Diablo Brothers, work well because they’re so defined by their impressive fighting styles that all they need to add to the story is some cool moves that can provide a worthy challenge for Yang Jiang’s substantial power. Others, like the drunken warrior Shen Gongbao, never get enough development to make their motivations clear and come off feeling more like archetypes than real characters.
The translation from Mandarin to English isn’t always smooth, leading to some confusing idioms and otherwise stilted dialogue. The film whips between stiff exposition, unnecessary internal flashbacks, and introducing new powers and concepts without any explanation. The result is some things feeling like deus ex machinas and it’s often hard to figure out what the stakes actually are.
Yet for all those flaws, New Gods: Yang Jiang is an absolutely gorgeous movie. The realm of the gods feels like Cloud City by way of Blade Runner, a spectacular floating realm populated by a huge variety of strange creatures from tiny mischievous demons to preening monkey crime bosses. The colors are vibrant and the details on the ships, armor, and clothing are so nuanced they bring depth to every scene.
Like with Nezha Reborn, New Gods: Yang Jiang is driven by its many kinetic chase scenes and fight sequences. The battles combine the style of wuxia with the over-the-top attacks of a martial arts anime. Characters duke it out by conjuring giant energy avatars or summoning a rain of glowing blades, but the outcome is still determined more by having a secret ally or a clever plan than a show of raw power.
The final sequence is especially spectacular, employing surreal landscapes reminiscent of Inception or Doctor Strange while playing with the animation style to demonstrate that the characters have been transported to a dangerous new realm. Unfortunately the story ends so abruptly that too many characters and plots feel like they’ve been left hanging for the film to deliver a really satisfying conclusion.