The gods take their endless battle to the streets of a sci-fi China in Zhao Ji’s action fantasy.
“This pile of scrap iron will let me kill you!”
I’ve spent a lot of time reading Journey to the West and watching its many, many adaptation, so much so that I dedicate the first month of the year to it. But this singular fascination with one of China’s oldest and most beloved has meant that some of the other works of classical Chinese literature have escaped me – and in this case, the Investiture of the Gods, of which the story of this film follows up on.
Set in an alternate universe, in a China-esque land divided by several clans, many people live under the rule of the De Gang and are suffering massive water shortages. Li Yunxiang is a smuggler in Donghai city, and something of an ace street racer. He has a bit of a rocky relationship with his father, though his civil servant brother Jinxuang and lounge singer Kasha are low-key supportive. Through a series of fun set pieces, Yunxiang quickly gets on the wrong side of the local crime lord and his son, who are revealed to be the dragons Ao Guang and Ao Bing (who Journey and Investiture readers will be familiar with). After a chase which results in Kasha losing her leg, Yunxiang vows to take revenge on them, taking training from a mysterious masked monkey man (gee, whoever could it be?) to embrace and control the aspect of Nezha dwelling within him.
People familiar with Chinese mythology will recognise a few names in in the movie, and the way they interact with each other is surprisingly well thought out and fitting to the main “canon”. It’s a good detail that unfortunately doesn’t really go anywhere as most of the plot and the hero-villain dynamic would have been at home in any generic animated family film. The story feels a little more polished and interesting in places, but that’s largely due to the fact that it’s drawig from something much more interesting. Ao Guang, Nezha, and the Masked Man have all got pre-defined personalities and backstories to work off, so it’s easier to springboard off that and work on what is essentially a sequel to their Ming dynasty adventures. On that note it’s certainly more interesting when you do have some basic familiarity with the source material.
On top of that, the film is filled with small details that help sell the mystical and spiritual elements within the story. For example, Yunxiang’s sister is seemingly named for the Japanese fire chariot spirit Kasha. It’s tricky to see how a Japanese spirit fits into the story but the imagery of flames and wheels (and the cat she adopts) invoked by her mythical namesake seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Combined with a very strong aesthetic, New Gods ends up being quite memorable thanks to its set design, character art and – arguably its strongest aspects – its lighting and colours. The whole thing drips atmosphere that while not particularly fresh, still looks very good. The neon lights, contrasted with the retro-futuristic world reminds me of Final Fantasy VII or some of my favourite pieces of Batman media.
It’s the look of the piece that kept me hooked. The dieselpunk aesthetic was a great choice from director Zhao Ji, offering us an out-of-time fictional world that allows for modern technology but also retains some classical facets in order to sell its more mythical aspects. Reimagining Nezha’s flaming wheels as a motorcycle, replacing Ao Bing’s spine with cyborg enhancements and giving
Sun Wukong The Six-Eared Macaque an expression-changing mask are all very cool choices that help sell the world even more. Though that said, I’ll admit that it took a bit of time for me to appreciate Light Chaser’s rendering of its characters. At first, their plasticky look suggested to me that the studio was going for a stop motion look – not unlike what you’d see from Laika. But the more I watched the figures emote and move in frenetic, fast-paced action sequences (backed up by a never-still camera) the more I appreciated the style.
In the end, New Gods felt more like I was playing a video game than watching a film but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On Netflix I watched it with dubtitles without realising, so it’s tricky to tell whether or not some of the story was altered and rendered a bit flatter for Western audiences (though I doubt it, considering the accurate name translations and unexplained Investiture callbacks), but it’s still worth seeing in original Mandarin, if only to avoid the English dub’s squawky Monkey voice. New Gods: Nezha Reborn was massively entertaining, enough to make me ignore the fact that it was doing nothing to challenge me in any way whatsoever. But no one’s going to clicking on an action sci-fi fantasy animated film expecting that, surely. Now to spend the rest of my evening looking for this film’s concept art.
Verdict: New Gods isn’t the most logical or best paced film, but its wild animation, frenetic action and gorgeous aesthetic gives us one incredible collection of video game cutscenes.
Overall entertainment: A surprising 8/10
Violence: 6/10 for style
[Power yells]: At least 2
Best design: The hospital in the Buddha statue
Worst design: Yaksa’s frog-troll look
Single-shot tour of the city: How else are you meant to open an animated film these days?
Yunxiang: Was there any significance behind his name? I couldn’t find one.
New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021)
Also known as: 新神榜：哪吒重生
Director: Zhao Ji
Writer: Mu Chuan
Yang Tianxiang – Li Yunxiang
Zhang He – Masked Monkey Man
Xuan Xiaoming – Ao Guang
Li Shimeng – Su Junchu
Zhu Ke’er – Kasha
King Zhenhe – Ao Bing
Gao Zengzhi – Yaksha