Directors: Teng Cheng, Wei Li
Notable Cast: Zheng Xi, Yang Ning, Tute Hameng, Yan Meme, Hi Guanlin, Shan Xin
After the immense success of Ne Zha for Beijing Enlight Pictures, the studio was quick to unveil their follow up film, one in the same ‘cinematic universe,’ Jiang Ziya. In fact, the studio must have been so confident in the success of Ne Zha that this second film was meant to be unleashed only 7 months after its predecessor. Unfortunately, there was a, uh, pandemic that occurred, and Jiang Ziya’s February release was pushed back until October 1st for theaters. On the plus side of that, it’s completely and utterly worth the wait. Jiang Ziya is easily one of the best films of the year. Incredible animation imbues a challenging fantasy epic, beating with a heart of gold and told in such a gorgeous manner that I couldn't help but be completely encapsulated in its tale of redemption, deception, and defiance. This Fengshen Cinematic Universe might be one of the cornerstones of animation right now and this film, in particular, cements Beijing Enlight as one of the major players in quality cinema.
It was be ill-advised of me to try and dig too much into how Jiang Ziya adapts and converts its source material. Based on a selection of Ming Dynasty era set of writings, the film is very much one that is culturally centered. Even with a bit of research after watching the film, there is a sense that the story, characters, and concepts are inherently rooted in the culture and it would be unwise for me to even try to dig into the film in this manner. As an audience, just be aware that this review simply aims to address the film on its own merits rather than one that focuses on the adaption of the source material.
The immediate draw of Jiang Ziya and perhaps the one point that will be the most memorable for the widest swath of the audience is the look of the film. It’s a gorgeous film that spurs the imagination and then slathers it in detailed world-building, vibrant color palettes, and crisp layered designs. The world of gods, spirits, and shenmo style adventure is dramatically realized here and it makes for quite the enthralling experience. The manner that man and nature intertwine, how each character as animal traits and the way that directors Cheng Teng and Li Wei combine modern animation style with traditional Chinese storytelling is a brilliant combination. The fantastical designs of the characters, the spirits, and the settings are all fully executed while the action set pieces are breathtakingly shot to carry excitement and momentum in full. If anything, the style of the film is worth seeing even if the narrative and story are far too fantastical for some of the more casual cinema fans out there.
Of course, there is an intriguing angle that Jiang Ziya takes that can be a shock to some. In the US, there is a sense that animation is meant to be for children or at least family-friendly. To a certain degree, this is true for Jiang Ziya. Our hero goes through the traditional hero’s journey, protecting a young girl from a bevy of villainous types who hate her for being a fox spirit, and it features a lovable and cute (occasionally kick-ass) animal sidekick that will definitely appeal to kids. There is a bit of user-friendly humor stirred into the mix too, some of which hits and some of which can be a bit broad. However, Jiang Ziya makes it apparent from its opening sequence, an animated back story that’s down in a different style of animation, that this film will touch on some darker moments, violence, and lofty concepts. After all, this is a film where our hero aims to defy heaven for his viewpoint that no life is small enough to be sacrificed, no matter the cost. This is perhaps most evident in the villain of the film, Nine-Tailed Fox. Not only is the design of the Fox Demon terrifying, its cracked mark, massive maw, and tentacle-like nine tails making its large and blood-red color a potent image, the manner that the character is unrelenting and devious is enough to scare grown adults if the mood is right. There is even a sequence where the Fox Demon out right executes a character with almost a haphazard attitude before making its way after our hero and his companions. By the time the third act rolls around, the film has taken on such a classic heroic adventure tone, where no character is safe from the clutches of fate, that the big narrative leaps of its character arcs and theological aspects of its morales can seem daunting to all viewers – let alone younger ones.
To be honest though, all of these aspects make Jiang Ziya the perfect combination for modern animated cinema. It’s a widely diverse film, where the themes and ideas can be teased apart for maximum analysis by more discerning viewers, but the classic fantasy adventure narrative and luscious animation make for a film easy to digest on the surface level too. It’s a dynamic watch through and through. It’s not the best film for young kids, but tweens and above are going to find a lot to love here. Jiang Ziya proves that animation is a force to reckon with in all parts of the world and Beijing Enlight has a sure-fire cinematic universe to explore in the best of ways.
Move over Ne Zha, Jiang Ziya just surpassed you.
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