Below is a brief review of the recently-released Chinese blockbuster movie, Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms. We would like to thank Trinity CineAsia for inviting Friends of Socialist China to attend a special showing and Q&A in London with the film’s director of photography.
This review is written by David Peat, an editorial board member of Iskra Books.
Those who have been paying attention to recent Chinese ‘blockbuster’ cinema will have noticed a qualitative shift in terms of the size of productions, the level of visual effects, and the confidence in representing both contemporary and historical Chinese stories. While wuxia (martial arts historical drama) with enormous casts, impressive sets, gravity-defying choreography, and beautiful costumes have for decades been one of the most popular Chinese cultural exports, the Chinese film industry was not typically well-known for its special effects. As recently as 2015, the general consensus with domestic audiences could be summed up by a slang term: 5元特效 “5 cent VFX”. However, with films such as the Wandering Earth series, the PRC’s film industry has shown it can offer a spectacle just as impressive, if not better, than the west.
That’s not to give the impression that the Chinese film industry is seeking to merely imitate Hollywood (whose ‘blockbuster’ offerings amount to endless sequels/revivals of increasingly exhausted intellectual property) but instead, the recent tranche of highly-polished cinematic works are squarely aimed at consolidating a vibrant domestic filmmaking industry, telling distinctively Chinese stories that will also have global crossover potential. This appears to be working, with China’s cinema market becoming the second-largest in the world in 2016, and the dominance of Hollywood-made films falling from 48% in 2012 to just 12% in 2021.
The latest cinematic ‘event’ in this burgeoning industry is Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a historical fantasy epic based on Chinese mythology. Inevitably referred to as “China’s Lord of the Rings”, this is an adaptation of the 16th-century novel Investiture of the Gods which itself tells a fantastical history of the transition from Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) to Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BCE). Released in July domestically, it went on to be the top-grossing film of the season, and likely the year. The production is absolutely enormous, with the trilogy expected to be the most ambitious and expensive in Chinese film history. Wuershan, the Chinese director from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, heads up the 2,000-strong crew on this epic project, and in fact did consult with Peter Jackson (the creative force behind the Lord of the Rings series) before getting started on this ambitious trilogy.
The story, which will be well-known to Chinese audiences, features a wide range of characters, with emperors, demons, demi-gods, evil magicians, and army generals, as well as a focus on the Emperor’s Royal Guard (which is composed of the sons of the most powerful regional Lords, to fend off rebellion). In spite of this, the film opens with Prince Yin Shou, as a general of the Emperor’s army, putting down a regional uprising with great violence. In the course of this, inadvertently awakening a fox demon who possesses the body of the daughter of the defeated, rebellious Lord. She talks her way into avoiding becoming another victim and accompanies the prince back to the imperial capital, becoming a concubine for the prince, and going on to encourage his aspiration to become ‘King of All Realms’ (by any means necessary). However, the manner of his ascension, as well as the widespread violence of putting down the earlier rebellion, incurs the wrath of the Gods who bring about ‘The Great Curse’, causing suffering in all corners of the land (and whose effects are shown in blighted crops, fouled water, and illness). The immortals of a spiritual plane known as ‘Kunlun’ send down some of their own to our world with a magical scroll called the ‘Fengshen Bang’, which, if activated by the King of All Realms, can bring about an end to The Great Curse. However, upon arrival at the royal palace, the demi-gods realise the cruel and untrustworthy nature of the current King, and worry that the Fengshan Bang may be used for evil instead of good. As such, they decide to flee and hope that any next king may be a more suitable recipient. The story goes on to chart the adventures of the demi-gods and their allies trying to prevent Yin Shou from gaining possession of the magical artefact, as well as the attempts of would-be usurpers of his throne, including a potential candidate who may be worthy of bringing an end to The Great Curse.
The set pieces are of an epic scale as would be expected from the Oscar-winning production design of Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon & Red Cliff), with enormous battle scenes, and Tim Yip’s amazing work with costuming is also on display. Since the era depicted is so historically distant, historical accuracy would be difficult to measure, however he was inspired by surviving Shang Dynasty bronze artefacts. The performances tend towards the melodramatic, as befitting the grand mythological stakes, with the egotistical and cruel Yin Shou (played by Fei Xiang, aka Kris Phillips) as well as the fox-demon’s host Su Daji (played by Naran) being particular standouts. The visual effects take centre stage and are (mostly) impressive, with one particularly powerful sequence of a fight with a giant, crumbling stone tiger magically brought to life being reminiscent of the lauded Shadow of the Colossus video game. All in all, the film is an entertaining and well-paced fantasy epic, and a great introduction for western audiences into a new and intriguing mythological tradition.
This film is the first part of a trilogy, and those who were bemused by the ending of Dune’s first film may take warning that this film likewise ends very much looking to the subsequent episodes, and it follows the contemporary tradition of a number of ‘mid-credits’ sequences setting up future events. It is, however, an enjoyable story in its own right and an excellent introduction to a wide range of characters, many of which will presumably play large parts in the forthcoming sequels, which are set to be released in China in 2024 and ‘25 respectively.
Creation of The Gods is distributed in the UK by Trinity Cine Asia. The film will be released on streaming services next year.