‘New Gods: Yang Jian’ Director Ji Zhao on Conjuring a Cutting-Edge Epic Fantasy

***This article originally appeared in the February ’23 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 327)***

The animated feature New Gods: Yang Jian, directed by Ji Zhao, was one of the most popular movies of 2022 in China. This second installment in the studio’s hit franchise follows in the footsteps of the director’s 2021 movie New Gods: Nezha Reborn. It was able to beat Minions: The Rise of Gru and earned $19.8 million during its opening weekend in August. Inspired by Chinese mythological figures, the blockbuster has already made over $77 million at the Chinese box office. This month, U.S. audiences will be able to enjoy the movie firsthand, thanks to a limited theatrical release by GKIDS.

The second New Gods storyline centers on a fallen hero, a penniless bounty hunter named Yang Jian, who is hired to track down his own long-lost nephew Chenxiang and find a magical lotus lantern to free his mother. Zhao says he was attracted to telling this origin story in a new, imaginative way to introduce a new generation of moviegoers to a classic character and mythology.

New Gods: Yang Jian

Tale as Old as Time

“Any story that lasts more than 1,000 years must have been told thousands of times in different periods of history,” Zhao in an email interview with Animation Magazine. “But in every period of time, the storytellers would connect their feelings and add some historical imprint in that version of the story.

Ji Zhao
Ji Zhao

“As a Chinese filmmaker, I feel so lucky that there are so many stories to be discovered from our cultural background. And, even luckier, with the technology of animation, we could rebuild the story in a more imaginative way. The New Gods series aims to reinterpret classic characters and stories from a younger perspective. How to make it ‘new’? This question is the origin.”

Yang Jian’s development started half-way through the production of Nezha Reborn, and it took about five years to complete. “We have had about 300 people within Light Chaser Studio who worked on this show, and another 400 artists from different vendors and another 200 post production artists who worked on dubbing, composing, sound, DI, songwriting, etc.,” says Zhao. “Yang Jian is a new height in terms of Light Chaser’s CG production quality. We used our in-house cloth simulation, motion capture technologies. The film’s total rendering time made a new record: We had 410 million CPU core hours, roughly half of which were cloud rendering.”

New Gods Yang Jian
Nicholas Andrew Louie (‘A Couple of Cuckoos,’ ‘Fire in His Fingertips’) provides the English dub voice of fallen deity Yang Jian.

According to the director, the new story takes audiences along on a thrilling ride to another time and place, exploring a different film genre and different choice of style and music. “The only common thing is it is under the same New Gods frame and made by the same studio,” he points out. “Neither the studio nor I wanted to repeat ourselves.”

Zhao, who also directed the studio’s popular 2019 movie White Snake, says he was drawn to the central character of the saga, Yang Jian, a once powerful deity who has fallen from grace. “For me, the opportunity to establish a household name is very rare,” he says. “He is a character full of contradictions; half-human, half-god, with a heroic past and a desolate status quo. He is a truly charming character!”

New Gods: Yang Jian

“At first, Yang Jian is introduced as an impoverished nobleman,” he notes. “The texture of his white robe should be reminiscent of expensive fine silk, and we laced it with intricate cloud patterns. In this story though, Yang Jian is no longer the God of War. His symbols as the God of War (the triple-tip double-blade sword and the silver-bullet slingshot) had to be repurposed. We designed his headwear in the shape of a triple-tip double-blade sword, and had him transform his silver-bullet slingshot into a harmonica. This harmonica is both an instrument Yang Jian carries around and is the key for his aircraft. Whenever he had nothing better to do, he’d toss it around. That’s a personal quirk of his.”

The film is set around the era of the Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 CE). “This is a period when many cultures clashed and fused,” says the director. “To stay faithful to the historical background, we went on discovery trips to places like the Shaanxi History Museum and Dunhuang City, and drew creative inspiration from traditional folk culture. What fascinated me the most about New Gods: Yang Jian was imagining how the realm of gods looked like in ancient times. In our story, the entirety of the Godly Realm is composed of many different fairy islands. The Penglai Fairy Island is akin to the central business district of the Godly Realm, Square Pot is the entertainment district, a city that never sleeps, and Yingzhou is a tourist spot with an exotic appeal.”

New Gods Yang Jian
Eastern Epic: Also inspired by Chinese mythological figures, this second installment of Light Chaser’s ‘New Gods’ series has grossed over $82.45 million.

Preserving Chinese Aesthetics

The director points out that balancing the traditional story and innovative new ideas was not an easy task. “From a storyline perspective, the well-known hero’s story and his characteristics vary in each individual’s knowledge,” he explains. “We have to find a very efficient way to invite our audience to start the story from the same page. In terms of the feature’s visuals, it is very challenging to present abstract Chinese aesthetics with realistic CGI technology.”

Overall, Zhao is pleased with how the movie offers both familiar elements and its share of twists and original surprises. “I think the way we created this movie brings audiences both familiarity and surprises. For example, in most ancient Chinese stories, you won’t see the characters ride a ship or an aircraft flying from one place to another! I hope our new audiences will enjoy watching this adventure, and hopefully it makes them anticipate the next chapter in our saga.”

GKIDS releases New Gods: Yang Jian in theaters on January 20.



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