New Gods: Yang Jian review: Chinese gods, meet Cowboy Bebop

Fans of Ji Zhao’s terrific 2021 CG animated Chinese movie New Gods: Nezha Reborn might expect something similar from his follow-up, New Gods: Yang Jian. They’ll get part of what they came for, in terms of epic god battles, big operatic emotions, and elaborately beautiful visual design. But in every other sense, the second film is a massive departure from the first — not so much an expansion of the setting as a largely unrelated story in a completely different genre.

Nezha Reborn sets up a structure that seems designed to repeat endlessly, with endless variations: A struggling human protagonist learns that he’s the reincarnation of a mythic god. Zhao (director of the fascinating donghua movie White Snake) and screenwriter Mu Chuan give that story impressive specificity, with a sci-fi-tinged postapocalyptic setting and a lot of complications around bringing ancient powers to a modern world. It’s easy to picture a series of New Gods movies as a Marvel Cinematic Universe-like setup for an eventual crossover, as old gods return to the mortal realm, start to reshape it, and eventually come into conflict.

But Zhao and Chuan’s follow-up largely leaves the mortal world behind, and instead hangs out in the realm of the gods, whose concerns feel much less relevant to a presumably human viewing audience. Yang Jian is a much more traditional Chinese fantasy epic. Its only noticeable link to sci-fi comes in its opening setup: a weirdly thorough pastiche of the anime series Cowboy Bebop. That’s a little bit of a disappointment.

From the moment Yang Jian introduces its titular protagonist, who’s playing a melancholy bluegrass harmonica riff over a close-up of his sky-ship’s engine powering down for lack of fuel, Cowboy Bebop fans are likely to have déjà vu. Yang Jian (voiced by Wang Kai) is the leader of a four-person team of down-on-their-luck bounty hunters who can barely afford to chase their latest target. Like his Bebop counterpart Spike Spiegel, Yang Jian is a deceptively young man who looks sleepy and checked-out most of the time, until someone threatens him to the point where he has to bust out his startling battle skills.

Yang Jian, a young Chinese man in white robes and a blue headband, smirks over his shoulder at the camera in a closeup from the CG animated film New Gods: Yang Jian

Image: GKIDS

His crew also seems suspiciously familiar: a bulky, muscular engineer with a scruffier version of Jet Black’s spiky beard; a hyper, scrawny red-haired kid who yells a lot and runs around on all fours; and a dog that’s smarter than it lets on. (The latter two have a funny connection that’s best experienced in the moment.) Only the fourth crew member, a generic pirate type who’s barely in the movie, doesn’t fit the mold.

Like the crew of the Bebop, this foursome runs down leads and gets into trouble, piloting their ship from place to place through wormhole gates that look like high-tech sky-hoops. Unlike the Bebop team, though, this crew is led by a god. Yang Jian — also known as the traditional Chinese folklore figure Erlang Shen — was a mighty power among the gods at one point, before his third eye closed and his powers faded. The gods and demons of folklore have generally fallen on hard times after a war for supremacy among the gods. In this story, the Immortal Realm where the spirits live looks like a series of retrofuturist towns and run-down way stations. The same cities hold luminescent flying dragons and grubby, dripping alleys full of refuse, but the latter clearly outnumber the former.

One of the bigger oddities in Yang Jian is how quickly the script abandons this intriguing setting and the entire Bebop motif. After just one bounty run, Yang Jian’s crew mostly disappears, the tone shifts, and the setting drops away. (The lonesome harmonica riffs stick around, though.) When a woman begs for Yang Jian’s help in recovering a powerful artifact, he revisits his past, drops in on his old mentor, and learns some new things about his family, all of which brings him into conflict with other gods, and takes him back to the widely misunderstood sequence of events where he lost his third eye — and sealed his sister under a mountain forever.

Nezha Reborn is similarly concerned with family ties and characters navigating how they’ve disappointed their kin, but that movie spends far more time with its relationships, and with exploring the price of power. Yang Jian feels far more surface-level, with a fair bit of imagery built around family ties, but not enough time actually building them. This is a movie that spends several long, agonized scenes on male characters wailing “Mother! Mother! Mother!” over and over at dim, disappearing visions of their moms, but doesn’t spend any time on actually creating those relationships, or letting the characters speak to each other.

A busy CG cityscape in the Chinese CG animated movie New Gods: Yang Jian, showing a mix of Chinese architecture, floating airships, glowing holograms, and drifting clouds

Image: GKIDS

And there’s plenty of god-on-god conflict, a fair bit of it involving extremely colorful and distinctive folklore figures like the four Mo Generals, or Investiture of the Gods star Shen Gongbao, here portrayed as a bitter drunken master in the traditional martial arts movie style, hanging out with a huge white tiger. Each of these gods has their own agenda, but the characters are drawn broadly, as defenders of tradition or seekers of vengeance — very much as gods of myth rather than people the audience can relate to or root for.

There’s plenty of incident and action in Yang Jian, centered on the title character’s pursuit of that magical artifact and the criminal who took it. But too often — at least in GKIDS’ English translation — that action comes without much context upfront, and viewers are left to watch a heist or a fight first, then piece together the players and stakes later. It makes for a fairly detached viewing experience, even when the heist or fight is brisk, intense, and thrilling.

Visual thrills are the main draw in Yang Jian. Just as in Nezha Reborn, when gods get serious about a conflict, they manifest giant, glowing avatars that mirror their actions. Every god has a different fighting style and widely varied combat tools, from traditional weapons to musical instruments to giant animal companions, which makes each battle distinctive. Weapons that send an enemy into a dream state or a phantasmagorical world give director Zhao all the opportunity he needs to radically change animation styles, or fill the screen with wild fantasy images. This is a movie worth seeing on the biggest screen available.

But very little of it lands with emotional impact, in spite of all the characters screaming each other’s names during fraught moments, or yelling at each other about various lies and betrayals. There’s more feeling in a short, silent sequence mimicking the treetop face-off in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than in all the combat put together. The real battle here is between people who want change, in a wide abstract sense, and people who want to hold the entire world in stasis. That’s a relatable conflict, in a way, in this politically tense moment or any other age. But here, it still isn’t drawn in a way designed to make viewers care about whether particular characters live or die, whether they get what they want or fade away, or whether they ever make it back to their Cowboy Bebop adventure after all the big god antics are done.

For Western viewers who want to do some homework afterward, New Gods: Yang Jian does serve some of the same purpose as Nezha Reborn: It’s an accessible introduction to some of the most memorable characters in Chinese historical epics, and a recasting of those epics in a modern light. And like the first movie, the second New Gods film considers the problems and costs of rebirth, and how hard the endless historical cycles of change can be on individual lives. It just lacks a human face to put on all these problems. The gods’ squabbles may be our squabbles as well, but if a third New Gods movie is on the way, it’d be better off bringing the action back down to Earth.

New Gods: Yang Jian is currently playing in limited nationwide theatrical release. This review is of the subtitled version of the film. Check the film’s website for specific theaters, and check with your local theater to see whether they’re playing the subtitled or dubbed version.

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