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League of Gods

Fan Bingbing tempts Jet Li in League of Gods.

Chinese: 封神傳奇  
Year: 2016
Director: Koan Hui  
Producer: Charles Heung, Wilson Yip Wai-Shun
Action: Dion Lam Dik-On

Jacky Heung Cho, Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Angelababy, Jet Li, Fan Bing-Bing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Wen Zhang, Huang Xiaoming, Zu Feng, Andy On Chi-Kit, Xu Qing, Jordan Chan Siu-Chun

The Skinny:

CGI-heavy fantasy adventure is technically diverting, but lacks competent storytelling to take advantage of its tried-and-true narrative tropes. Also, some of the CGI representations of actual humans – like the young Jet Li or the CGI baby version of Naza – are potential nightmare fuel. Great for babysitting your kids while you do something else.

by Kozo:

Fans of mindless CGI orgies might enjoy mindless CGI orgy League of Gods, a fantasy wuxia that replaces coherent storytelling with sensory overload so egregious that it should be illegal. Hollywood didn't make this movie but they make ones like it every other week – the Transformers movies immediately come to mind – and China would like to crack their code for blockbuster success. So far they've figured out: Get CGI, get stars and get a familiar property. League of Gods has all three, starting with the property: It’s based on "Fengshan Yanyi" (a.k.a. "Investiture of the Gods"), a 16th century Chinese novel that mixes actual history with Chinese mythological figures, though probably in a less knowing manner than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The novel covers the end of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) and the rise of the succeeding Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), with both sides in the conflict having the ability to call upon the Gods to fight for them. Not surprisingly, video games have been based on this premise too.

League kicks off with an introduction to long-legged Da Ji (Fan Bingbing), an evil fox spirit who's seduced King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) of Shang and turned him into an oppressive despot. Naturally this chafes on the citizenry, so the rebels of Xiqi rise against King Zhou and his douchey evil ways. Overthrowing him is hard because Da Ji has snake-like CGI tentacles and the services of the malevolent General Leopard (Louis Koo), who commands an army of airships when he's not busy tinkering with golems in his dungeon workshop. Meanwhile, the good guys have Master Jiang (Jet Li), a wizened Pai Mei cosplayer who divines through a clairvoyant eye that the key to victory is the "Sword of Light", which will enable the proper wielder to defeat Black Dragon, the supremely evil big bad. Black Dragon has not yet made an appearance on the battlefield but prophecy states that he will, so someone had better find that sword quick.

Master Jiang's nominee for sword-finding duty is Ji Lei (Jacky Heung), who possesses "adept power" that allows him to shoot lightning from his fingers. Aiding Ji Lei is a talking weed who guides him to non-vegetable companions: Naza (Wen Zhang), a deity who can transform between an adult and a big-eyed CGI baby, and Yang Jian a.k.a. Erlang (Huang Xiaoming), who has an armored canine sidekick named Sky Howler. Ji Lei's new comrades quickly disappear to tackle their own sidequests, but the weed tells the worried Ji Lei, "Don't worry, you'll be fated to meet again." Really? If everything is fated then why does everyone act like finding the sword is in doubt and not some foregone conclusion? Whatever. Not having them along allows Ji Lei more time with Blue Butterfly (Angelababy), a spunky lass who seems friendly but is really a magical marionette and a spy for General Leopard. Blue Butterfly is actually introduced when she's being built in General Leopard's workshop – so no, her double agent status is not a spoiler.

Tragically, Ji Lei is the sole survivor of the extinct Wing Tribe, which means he should have wings and be able to fly. However, currently he can't. Will Ji Lei come to terms with his past and learn to fly again? Will the rebels find the Sword of Light and stop Black Dragon? Will Ji Lei discover that Blue Butterfly is a traitor? Will Naza and Yang Jian actually return for the final battle? And how many of these storylines have you experienced whole or slightly modified in other fantasy films? Stripping away things like language and culture, League of Gods is not much different from Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings in scope and story, as they're all about a world-altering (or galaxy-altering) quest undertaken by an unlikely hero with surprising abilities. That familiarity should make League of Gods easily accessible, but the filmmakers botch the advantage. Thanks to its supremely lousy storytelling, the film never bridges the gap between its dense lore and the audience.

League lacks grounding to make its world and characters relatable to an audience unfamiliar with the source material. The people are supposedly oppressed by tyrannical rule but evidence of such is never seen. Characters are archetypes that aren't developed, and possess arcs that are unearned outside of exposition. The film's most emotional subplot is the burgeoning friendship between Ji Lei and Blue Butterfly, but development is sparse and Jacky Heung is not much of an actor. One might ask how a non-star like Heung was cast in the lead of such a big production – that is, if one didn’t know that producer Charles Heung is his father. Angelababy does a good job of portraying Blue Butterfly's innocence, and given the fact that Butterfly was constructed in a lab, Angelababy's much-vaunted perfect features are fitting. Many of the supporting actors bring solid presence, particularly the glowering Louis Koo and the convincingly sensuous Fan Bingbing. Wen Zhang fares perhaps the best, and shows engaging rebellious spirit as Naza. However, his massive-eyed CGI baby form is nightmare fuel.

Superficially, League of Gods has plusses. The visual effects are mostly good, with the notable exception of the CGI used to render Jet Li at various ages (Master Jiang is suffering from a "reverse aging" Benjamin Button-like curse that requires CGI to present younger versions of Jet Li). Production and costume design are less impressive, though their gaudiness serves as a form of entertainment. Everyone looks like a reject from a glitzy online MMORPG – not a bad thing considering the genre and target audience. However, all bets are off when the film goes underwater. At one point, Naza visits the Merfolk Kingdom, which looks like a production of "The Little Mermaid on Ice" minus the singing and girls in seashell bra-tops. While under the sea, Naza employs industrial-strength urination and gale-force flatulence to terrorize his part-crustacean foes. It's all really puerile and ridiculous but the filmmakers are producing entertainment for the lowest-common-denominator. Creativity, challenge, complex narratives – these are things that discerning audiences want and the filmmakers seemingly don't.

League of Gods is clearly a bad film, but there is an audience that might enjoy it. The film's visual effects and silly comedy can be diverting for families and kids and, the farting and pissing sequences aside, the content is never as insulting or cringeworthy as a Transformers film – which many people actually do like, fancy that! League of Gods falls apart under any sort of scrutiny but scrutiny is not something that general audiences are known to employ. For the filmmakers' sake, this demographic has hopefully become fans – or at least not haters – of League of Gods because apparently more than one movie is planned. The finale is a big CGI blowout that involves all the major players and ups the scale, and leaves more than a few plot points unresolved. If there is a League of Gods 2, the filmmakers will have to depend on CGI, stars and source material all over again. Because they probably can’t count on people thinking that the first film was good. (Kozo, 10/2016)

  Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen