Review: ‘New Gods: Yang Jian,’ a fantasy adventure about a mythic figure from China

January 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Yang Jian in “New Gods: Yang Jian” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“New Gods: Yang Jian”

Directed by Zhao Ji

Available in the original Mandarin version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in China in the years 420 to 589 (during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties), the animated film “New Gods: Yang Jian,” a sequel to 2021’s “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A formerly powerful god, who is now a poor bounty hunter, competes with his long-lost nephew and other rivals to find the treasure of a magical lotus lantern. 

Culture Audience: “New Gods: Yang Jian” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” and any fantasy film involving a hunt for hidden treasure, no matter how substandard the storytelling is.

Chenxiang in “New Gods: Yang Jian” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The animated film “New Gods: Yang Jian” is just a mess of fantasy adventure clichés about a hero looking for a hidden treasure, and spells that must be broken. Eye-catching visuals can’t disguise the erratic storytelling and stupid dialogue. The movie’s world building is inadequately explained. The choppy editing seems intended for viewers with short attention spans, yet it still makes the story very dull.

Directed by Zhao Ji and written by Mu Chuan, “New Gods: Yang Jian” is a sequel to the 2021 animated film “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” also directed by Zhao and written by Mu. Both movies are loosely connected to each other in having the same concept of reincarnation/reinvention for their respective protagonist heroes, but both movies have completely self-contained plots. In other words, it’s not necessary to know anything about “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” before seeing “New Gods: Yang Jian.”

“New Gods: Yang Jian” takes place in China in the years 420 to 589 (during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties), but most of the story really takes place within a year in a place called the Immortal Realm. The movie has numerous flashbacks that jump around from different decades, thereby further muddling the already poorly constructed plot. A story about finding a hidden treasure should be fairly uncomplicated, but “New Gods: Yang Jian” gets sidetracked with many detours and convoluted explanations that are get quite irritating after a while, in this 126-minute movie that becomes a chore to watch.

In “New Gods: Yang Jian,” Erlang Shen, also known as Erlang Mu, is a poor bounty hunter who used to be a powerful god named Yang Jian. Thirteen years ago, when he was Yang Jian, he trapped his sister Yang Chan beneath a mountain, and Yang Jian was stripped of his powers. (It’s explained why in the last third of the movie.) Yang Jian’s sister has a 13-year-old son named Chenxiang. In the beginning of the movie, Yang Jian has not seen Chenxiang since Chenxiang was a baby.

One day, Erlang/Yang Jian is visited by a mysterious woman named Wanluo, who hires him to find her sister, who disappeared 12 years ago. Wanluo says that the Lamp of Universal Contentment, also known as a magical lotus lamp, was stolen from her sister, and she wants Erlang/Yang Jian to find this magical lamp too. Guess who else is looking for the lamp? Chenxiang, because he thinks getting the lamp will free his mother from the cave.

Other rivals want the lamp too. Erlang/Yang Jian’s adversaries include a hulking duo called the Mo Brothers and a powerful but drunken military general named Shen Gongbao, who used to be a mentor to Chenxiang. Shen Gongbao also has a grudge against Yang Jian. Some other characters appear along the way. One of them is Master Yuding, an elderly and wise teacher of Gold Sunset Cave. Yang Jian used to be a student of Master Yuding.

A major problem with “New Gods: Yang Jian” is that it zips around from one elaborately created location to the next in the Immortal Realm—sometimes with editing that’s so fidgety, a location is shown for less than three minutes before it’s on to the next location. Viewers will feel like visitors who are being rushed through a tour without getting enough time or enough explanation to learn more about each location in the Immortal Realm. These locations include Penglai Fairy Island, Square Pot, Yingzhou and Smuggler’s Point.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” has some unnecessary characters that have no real bearing on the main plot. For example, the beginning of the movie shows bounty hunter Erlang on Penglai Fairy Island, where he narrowly escapes death when a monster named Boss Hai comes after him with an axe. Erlang captures a teenage boy, who is called a “snake oil peddler” and listed as Medicine Boy in the movie’s end credits. Erlang puts Medicine Boy in jail on a ship. None of this action ultimately has any revelance to the outcome of the story. “New Gods: Yang Jian” shows this jailed teenager enough times, it looks he will play an important role in the movie, but he doesn’t.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” also has very unimpressive and sexist portrayals of the movie’s few women and girls, who are either depicted as femme fatales or subservient airheads. Another very unnecessary character is a teenage girl named Xiaotian, who is infatuated with Erlang/Yang Jian. Xiaotian worships him so much, she crawls on all fours when she’s around him, as if she’s a pet animal. The male characters treat her like a pathetic “fangirl” or “groupie.” This Xiaotian character is ultimately not needed at all in the movie, and neither is the misogyny that went into creating this degrading female character.

The hunt for the Lamp of Universal Contentment doesn’t feel like a treasure hunt in the movie but more like plot objective that gets shunted to the side when the movie has more rambling expositions and flashback scenes that clutter up the story. A huge chunk of the movie takes place on a ship (probably the least interesting location), when more time could have been spent in more fascinating-looking places, such as the Fairy Palace or the Square Pot Casino. All of the movie’s fight scenes, except for the final showdown, are very forgettable. As for the characters’ personalities, they are filled with stereotypes and have simple-minded conversations. There isn’t enough comic relief to make watching this shambling movie any easier.

The voices of the “New Gods: Yang Jian” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “New Gods: Yang Jian.” The original Chinese version (with English subtitles) has Wang Kai as Yang Jian, Li Lanling as Chenxiang, Ji Gwanling as Wanluo, Li Lihong as Master Yuding and Zhao Yi as Shen Gongbao. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Nicholas Andrew Louie as Yang Jian, Luke Naphat Sath as Chenxiang, Christine Lin as Wanluo, Parry Shen as Master Yuding and James Sie as Shen Gongbao.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” is the type of animated film that was made to appeal to a wide range of age groups. However, this movie is not going to be very enjoyable to most children under the age of 10, who will easily get restless or bored by a jumbled plot that requires comprehension usually found in people older than the age of 10. Even people who are old enough to understand the plot will get annoyed about how “New Gods: Yang Jian” takes a little over two hours to tell a story that could have been told in a movie that’s 45 minutes or less. “New Gods: Yang Jian” is a treasure-hunt movie that is ultimately not work seeking out by viewers who want to watch a thrilling animated adventure that tells a story in a cohesive and clever way.

GKIDS released “New Gods: Yang Jian” in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022, and re-released the movie in U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023. “New Gods: Yang Jian” was released in China on August 19, 2022.

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