The “New Gods” cinematic universe expands with the visually stunning “Yang Jian.”

Animation studio Light Chaser Animation has released seven films with ones most likely known in North America being White Snake (2019), New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021), and Green Snake (2021), the latter two likely because of their accessibility on Netflix. Though the Snake films are connected, a reimagining of the Legend of the White Snake Chinese legend, Nezha Reborn is part of a different tale, specifically the 16th-century Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods), reshaped from the traditional period into a modern steampunk-inspired approach. Following it up, Light Chaser Animation released New Gods: Yang Jian in 2022, continuing the world of Nezha Reborn but turning its focus toward a different individual, the greatest hero of Heaven Erlang, also known as Yang Jian. Trading the bombast of Nezha’s fiery disposition for the tranquility of Yang Jian, returning director Zhao Ji invites audiences to go on a journey through the immortal realm, bearing witness to the awesome might of several legendary warriors in a film that evokes the more traditional flourishes of wuxia tales.

12 years ago, a terrible tragedy occurred. Since then, former-warrior Yang Jian (voiced by Wang Kai) is now a bounty hunter, taking jobs throughout the immortal realm with a small band of compatriots. Upon completion of a gig, he’s hired by the mysterious Wanluo (voiced by Ji Guanlin) to track down Chenxiang (voiced by Li Lanling) who’s stolen something precious to her. The ever-casual and calm Yang Jian thinks he’s signed up for routine bounty, but it turns into a quest that’ll forever change his life and the balance of peace between Heaven and Earth.

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Chenxiang as voiced by Li Lanling/Luke Naphat Sath in NEW GODS: YANG JIAN. Photo courtesy of GKids Films.

At the time of this writing, I’ve got roughly 48 minutes left in Nezha Reborn, so I feel comfortable stating that if you dig Nezha and want more, Yang Jian is going to satisfy. Smartly, the approach from one film to the other is shifted so that nothing feels recycled outside of the animation style. The biggest difference lies in the setting. While Nezha takes place in the mortal realm, Yang Jiang is primarily in the immortal realm, allowing the art direction and production a more naturalistic color palate to work with beyond the harsh browns and reds that permeate Nezha. Where Nezha requires the ground for its tale of natural resource hoarding, Yang Jian is in the skies, existing within the Heavens, allowing for aerial sequences that feature white billowing clouds, blue skies, and serene landscapes broken by magic wielders driven by conviction. The costume design from one to the other also shifts, with Yang Jian dressed in whites and blues, his attire simple and economical, indicative of the famed disciplined and honor-bound warrior. The clothes are non-binding, lacking the weight and heft of the rough-and-tumble outfit that Nezha wears, enabling Yang Jian to move gracefully whether going for a stroll or in combat. The other characters follow suit, dressed in more traditional Chinese garb, implying that the whole of the tale is taking place long ago, compared to Nezha’s alt-modern setting. One bit about the characterization of Yang Jian that amuses more than anything is his almost Sammo Hung/Jackie Chan-like presentation, a feeling propagated by the many times Yang Jian naturally inserts silly or comedic beats into his interactions either through an exasperated sigh, by missing a mark, or just his general confusion in the early parts of the film. Aiding in the characterization is the use of anachronistic, though often diagetic, scoring via a blues riff (either through Yang Jian’s mouthharp or Guo Haowei’s (White Snake/Nezha Reborn) score). It amplifies Yang Jian’s calm and coolness, a stark contrast to the rock ‘n’ roll that permeates Nezha.

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Yang Jian as voiced by Wang Kai/Nicholas Andrew Louie in NEWS GODS: YANG JIAN. Photo courtesy of GKids Films.

Speaking of confusion, Yang Jian’s script from returning writer Mu Chuan (Nezha Reborn) can feel like a lot to navigate. The start of the film in which both Yang Jian and Chenxiang are introduced flows neatly from one to the other, enabling the audience to gauge the two through the actions as the dialogue is sparse in these sequences. This demonstrates, on the part of Mu and Zhao, that they understand the significance of letting the actions convey personality and ethics over words. After this setup, though, the exposition comes frequently and can be hard to latch onto, especially as more characters are introduced and motives remain murky. On the one hand, the whole of Yang Jian is designed as a mystery that we, through Yang Jian, come to solve, and its one that’s worth suffering some confusion. On the other, the constant shell game makes the details within the exposition harder to hold onto as to what means something in one scene can shift entirely in another. Those more familiar with the Investiture of the Gods may have less of a hard time understanding the narrative as it unravels, but, for those with less of a grasp, some of the details grow more difficult to latch onto which creates a sense of a lack of logic at the film’s center. In an effort to keep things spoiler-free, specifics will remain held back; however, 12 years is not so long that certain facts feel less likely to either be forgotten or totally unknown.

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A scene from NEW GODS: YANG JIAN. Photo courtesy of GKids Films.

That said, Yang Jian is not without its charms and many of them come from the freedom the medium of animation affords Zhao in telling this wuxia tale. Fight sequences are beautifully rendered with Yang Jian’s power (reduced due to his injury from 12 years prior) as a yellow light that forms over or trails behind whichever aspect of his body requires enhancing in movement. It’s a small yet significant flourish, conveying Yang Jian’s supernatural abilities. Similarly, as he engages in combat with other members of the immortal realm and they invoke their powers, whether physically or through massive projections they call God-bodies, animation allows them to present in such a size and scale that elicits awe. For this review, GKids kindly provided a screener to view from home and, folks, when I tell you that I wished I could see portions in a theater…Wow, these sequences! Especially when the exposition is finally done and all mysteries are revealed, there is an action set piece that’s so stunning, quite literally, that had I seen it in a theater I would’ve disturbed my fellow filmgoers with my very audible reaction. It comes from seemingly nowhere, is crafted artfully, and just drops your jaw with its precision in execution. Live-action films are fantastic, but there are limits to what is believable (see: the MCU’s final act problem); whereas animation has only the limits of the artists’ tools and imaginations. Especially in the sequence I’m mentioning, they go full plus ultra and it’s marvelous. Speaking of the animation, as the technology has improved, Light Chaser has been able to give its characters less of a plastic look to the skin textures so that people more closely resemble something authentic without breaching the uncanny valley.

Though there have been comparisons made to Nezha Reborn, allow me to be as clear as possible: Yang Jian is its own film. One doesn’t need to see the other New Gods film to understand the plot or characters of another, though it will help in understanding one of the two credit scenes. They exist separately and together, creating the threads for a shared universe of stories that may or may not converge as the Investiture of the Gods implies they will. Honestly, seeing this version of the Monkey King (Zhang He) in a scene with Yang Jian would be delightful, but, should that moment never come, it won’t feel like a loss. So if you are a fan of Light Chaser’s films, are excited to see the latest New Gods project, or just want to experience something that may spark your imagination, Yang Jian won’t disappoint. If you’re comfortable in theaters, this is one you won’t want to miss.

In theaters January 20th, 2023.

For more information, head to GKids Films’s official New Gods: Yang Jian webpage.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews

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