The vast universe of fantasy in Chinese literature has always been a source for the film industry to make new intriguing movies. Whether it’s a daring interpretation of a old classic, like Stephen Chows Journey to the West movies, or a more traditional approach, like in the tv-series Pilgrimages to the West from 1986, Chinese fantasy is a much beloved genre. But sometimes the beloved classics can’t save even the worst of movies. League of Gods, which is based on the 16th century book Investiture of the Gods, has all the fantastic elements of a Chinese fairy tale but as so many other Chinese fantasy films before this one the pace and clarity of the narrative is ruined not only by the sheer number of characters in the film but also by, I think, a naive understanding on the how of “How can we please everybody in the audience?”.
League of Gods is set during the end period of the Shang dynasty, some 3000 years ago. King Zhou (played by Tony Leung Ka-fai), who also is the Black dragon, has allied himself with Daji (Fan Bingbing), a consort but also a evil fox spirit. With the desire to rule the whole world they eliminate all those who pose a threat. The kingdom of Xiqi has started a resistance against the tyrant king and under the guidance of the wise sage Jiang Ziya (Jet Li) the warrior Lei Shenzi (Jacky Heung) is sent out on a quest to find two other aides, Nezha (Wen Zhang) and Yang Jian (Huang Xiaoming), who can help them defeat King Zhou and Daji. During their quest Lei, Nazha and Yang Jian/Erlang all deal with their own personal struggle before turning their weapons on King Zhou.
Intriguing as the plot might sound the director has chosen to focus mostly on action sequences and CGI which seriously halts the structure of the narrative and leaves one wishing for more dynamic between the characters. The love story, at least that’s what I think it is, between Jacky Heungs character and Angelababys character (Lan Die) feels forced and wooden while the animated Magic Grass (仙草) character, who functions as a comic-relief sidekick, is mostly in the way and annoying. The huge repertoire of famous mythological characters drains the vitality of the film because focus is directed more towards the traits and superpowers of individuals rather than the strength of the whole story.
Even though the narrative doesn’t hold up the film the CGI is actually remarkably well done. The scene where Nezha goes to the Kingdom of the East Sea and fights crabs and octopuses is a real treat for those who enjoys computer generated action sequences. Even though the occasional shot of the un-animated Ao Guang gives a kitschy feeling to the whole scene it’s nevertheless more or less ruined by the farting, peeing and burping by the baby-version of Nezha.
Herein lays the problem with League of Gods, not only is the fight-flatulence scene in the East Sea a childish attempt to try and cater to all ages in the audience it’s also an infantile understanding of how to make a story for all kinds of people. Film workers in China are struggling with the enigma of how to master a non-existent rating system and a tight censorship, which makes it hard to direct a movie towards a specific audience group, but the ones that do succeed (The Mermaid, Monster Hunt) will find that it’s better to find a common ground for the audiences demand than it is to divide them all up. That’s probably why League of Gods never became a big success in China and the few who did watch it now suffer under the hands of tentpole-script writers who doesn’t know how to end a movie well.