AKA: Legend of the Gods
Director: Koan Hui, Vernie Yeung
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Fan Bing-Bing, AngelaBaby, Huang Xiao-Ming, Louis Koo, Wen Zhang, Kristy Yeung Kung-Yu, Jacky Heung Cho, Andy On Chi-Kit, Zu Feng
Running Time: 109 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In the last 10 years China has gradually become one of the world’s box office juggernauts, and with a potential cinema going audience of over a billion, naturally many Hollywood productions have turned their attention to ensuring they appeal to the Chinese market. With the movie business proving to be a potentially lucrative industry to invest in, over recent years the Chinese blockbuster has also emerged to capture the imaginations, and wallets, of the local audience. Arguably, this new generations approach on how to put together a successful production has been less than stellar. The motif seems to be the louder and more spectacular the better, usually casting aside such minor details as character and storyline.
While the industry has heavily invested in its special effects studios, providing a seemingly endless supply of money in an attempt to get on par with their Hollywood equivalents, there seems to be very little investment into areas like directing, script-writing etc. As a result, frequently the finished product will be a garish nightmare of CGI chaos and little else, as the basic fact remains that the knowledge around the filmmaking process for this new generation remains very low. Examples such as Painted Skin: The Resurrection, The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, and Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, apart from having ridiculously long titles, all share the same thing in common – a reliance on CGI spectacle as their selling point.
The latest entry into what’s quickly becoming a sub-genre of CGI filled fantasy spectacles, comes in the form of League of Gods, an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel called Investiture of the Gods, that combined real history with Chinese myth. The plot revolves around the battle between two dynasties, the Shang and the Zhou, with the hook being that both sides are able to call upon Gods to battle it out for them. Of course with such a plot, the very nature of a big screen adaptation would be one that needs some top drawer special effects, so most likely with this in mind, special effects maestro Koan Hui On was made director. Hui On was the man behind the special effects on such movies as Dragon Tiger Gate and The Legend of Zu, so is a natural fit for a tale of God’s battling it out on the protagonist’s behalf.
In many ways putting Hui On in the director’s chair marks a watershed moment for this type of Chinese blockbuster filmmaking. Almost like the producers said, “Ok, let’s stop pretending we want a legitimate director to helm these movies, and give free reign to the special effects guy.” On a sidenote, it’s worth mentioning that the producers for League of Gods are Wilson Yip, the director responsible for Donnie Yen being the star that he is today, and Charles Heung, who’s notorious for his connection to the Triad group Sun Yee On, which his father founded. Heung also had a relatively successful acting career, and is likely most recognizable as Chow Yun Fat’s bodyguard from the God of Gamblers series. Whether its connected to his Triad links or not is speculation, but Heung’s son Jacky Heung takes the lead role in League of Gods, playing the sole survivor of the Wing Tribe, a trauma that’s left him unable to fly like he should.
The storyline, no doubt thanks to its source material, crams a lot into its 110 minute runtime, but the in a nutshell version goes like this – a King played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai has been turned into an oppressor of the people, thanks to the evil influence of a fox spirit (aren’t they all?) he’s been enchanted by, played by Fan Bingbing. A group of rebels have been trying to overthrow Ka-Fai, however Bingbing is always one step ahead, thanks to the various unexplained Venus flytrap like tentacles that she can unleash on cue.
Bingbing is also in cahoots with an evil general played by Louis Koo, who comes complete with a giant puma that he rides. Heung is one of the rebels, who are assisted by a wise old sorcerer that travels around on a giant stalk played be Jet Li (the sorcerer, not the giant stalk). Li convinces Heung to go on a mission to find the Sword of Light, the only weapon capable of stopping the Black Dragon, the unseen super villain behind everything. Heung ends up being joined by a talking one eyed blade of grass, a shrimp, Na Cha (the same character played by Alexander Fu Sheng in Chang Cheh’s 1974 production Na Cha the Great) and a righteous warrior with an armoured dog called Sky Howler.
If that all seems slightly convoluted, you wouldn’t be wrong, however Hui On seems to know what he’s there for, so wastes precisely zero time on dwelling on any of the above, instead sending League of Gods sprinting out of the gates from the first minute. From the opening CGI infused attack on the floating city by Heung and his cohorts, the high energy sequence sets the tone for what can be expected from the rest of the movie. If any word can be best used to describe the production, it’s ‘kinetic’. There’s not a single second that goes by when Hui On doesn’t’ have something happening onscreen – be it 30 foot long desert caterpillars, shield surfing rebels, big eyed babies, or mutated monster soldiers. It’s almost impossible to create an exhaustive list of everything that gets thrown onto the screen, in a constant bombardment of colourful and creative CGI action.
Perhaps because League of Gods doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a slice of colourful fantasy escapism, eschewing any sense of realism and instead embracing the over the top nature of the story, I admit to finding myself thoroughly enjoying it. It’s the kind of enjoyment that can be classified as a guilty pleasure, as just like the problems I mentioned with Chinese filmmaking earlier, it’s by no means a good movie in the traditional sense of the word. Structure isn’t paid much attention to here, but the pace moves forward with such a frantic level of energy, ready to distract you with whatever’s going to be thrown onscreen next, that there’s no time to dwell on the aspects that don’t make sense. Ka Fai has become an oppressive ruler, but once the credits roll, if you stop and think for more than a few seconds, you’ll realize that not once did we see any of the people who are presumably being oppressed.
The cast no doubt help things. Heung actually makes for an effective lead, bringing a suitable level of empathy to his role as the sole surviving member of his wiped out clan. He also maintains his presence during the action scenes, no matter how swamped with CGI they get, which is an achievement in itself. Wen Zhang, who played the main character in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, steps into the shoes that Alexander Fu Sheng once filled to play Na Cha (when he’s not in the form of a mischievous CGI baby that is. Don’t ask.). The role was originally going to be given a twist and made female, and filming had already begun with Cecilia Cheung, however due to her erratic behaviour on-set she was fired in the early stages.
Rounding out the trio of heroes (not counting the blade of grass and shrimp), is Huang Xiao Ming, who played the young version of Chow Yun Fat in The Last Tycoon, and Donnie Yen’s main student in Ip Man 2. Jet Li also deserves a mention, as he gets cursed by a spell which makes him younger and younger the more energy he uses, a kind of Chinese fantasy Benjamin Button if you will. So if you ever wanted to see a young Jet Li created by CGI, you’ve come to the right place. Those expecting Li to perform any martial arts though are definitely in the wrong place. You have to feel for Li, he stated in 2006 that Fearless was to be his last true martial arts movie, however even 10 years later his fans still seem to have a hard time believing him. To confirm, his role in League of Gods is more akin to his character from The Sorcerer and the White Snake, than it is from any of his kung-fu classics.
Even as a guilty pleasure though, League of Gods is not without its faults. When the baby version of Na Cha visits an undersea kingdom, much like a similar scene in the unbearably awful The Monkey King, the costumes are decidedly B-grade, and the whole sequence is puerile (urination and fart jokes anyone?). I can only conclude that Chinese fantasy movies should steer clear of underwater sequences, if you don’t believe me then just research Empires of the Deep. However despite this, League of Gods still ultimately entertains, and I imagine is the kind of fantasy flick that Chang Cheh would be making had he been alive today, a kind of modern day version of The Fantastic Magic Baby or Na Cha the Great if you will. With a cliff-hanger ending that sets things up for a part 2, while I can’t say I’ll be immediately re-watching League of Gods, I’ll happily check in for the sequel.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10