In just about every culture on Earth there is a story involving the creation of existence. There are stories of emergence, of coming out of nothingness, of being born from chaos, and more. In each culture, these stories serve as much as philosophical lessons, parables, as they do a means of maintaining an oral history of a community’s origins. One such story is the 16th century Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods) that has been told (and re-told) in portions in text, television, and film over the years, including from studio Light Chaser Animation with their films White Snake (2019), New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021), Green Snake (2021), and New Gods: Yang Jian (2023). Each film narrows the focus of the larger story onto specific characters who play a significant part on the wider story. Now, however, director/co-writer Wuershan (The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman) with fellow co-writers Ran Ping (The Monkey King 2), Ran Jia-Nan (Painted Skin: The Resurrection), and Sheng Cao seek to adapt Fengshen Yanyi entirely via a trilogy of films titled Creation of the Gods, beginning with I: Kingdom of Storms. For those with some appreciation for or knowledge of the source material, you will be enamored with this incredible, sprawling adaptation that captivates from start to finish. However, if you don’t have the smallest foothold in the lore of Fengshen Yanyi, you face an exceedingly steep learning curve that may prove insurmountable.
Upon Yin Shou’s (Kris Phillips), a seemingly kind son and strong leader, ascension to the throne of the Shang Dynasty, a great curse is inflicted upon the land. In order to set things right, the Supreme One of Heaven sends emissaries led by Jiang Ziya (Huang Bo) to give Yin Shou the Fengshen Bang, a scroll that only the King of All Realms can use to clear the curse from the land and save his people. However, treachery is afoot and not all is what it seems as there are those who wish to possess the Fengshen Bang for their own nefarious purposes and it will take more than the might of man to press back against it and, ultimately, dispel the curse.
For the Western crowd, the closest approximation in literature may be to compare Kingdom of Storms to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth meets King Lear. There’s murder aplenty as fathers and sons clash all while declaring their loyalty, all of it started by a feminine-presenting fox demon and a willing “man of honor.” So while there are moments in which immortals and man clash, the undercurrent tension that courses through Kingdom of Storms lies within the proper application of leverage upon a son’s loyalty to their father, a task made all the harder by a culture whose custom it is to send a son from each Duke of the Land — North, South, East, and West — to be members of what’s called the Hostage Brigade, trained under Yin Shou, to function as a living token of fealty and the first to die when treason occurs. To whom do you owe your loyalty, the film asks, to the person who raised you or to the person you haven’t seen in eight years who may not remember you and who gave you up? At least, these are the words that Yin Shou repeats to us and to his “beloved” brigade, so much so that the soldiers within it find themselves repeating it to each other as barbs in their own interpersonal squabbles. It’s because of this that Wuershan grants the audience mortal surrogates in the forms of Yin Jiao (Chen Muchi), Yin Shou’s son and member of the Hostage Brigade, and Ji Fa (Yu Shi), son of Duke of the West’s Ji Chang (Li Xue Jian). With these two, the audience is given a way to not get lost when immortals, demons, Taoist sorcerers, and more begin to appear, shifting things from the interpersonal into the wondrous. Especially when the action sequences kick off, of which there are several, the emotional tethers created by following Ji Fa and Yin Jiao enable all that befalls the land to feel tangible and weighted.
This being an adaptation of a 100-chapter novel that involves the conflict of Heaven and Earth, there’s going to be set pieces that are meant to inspire our awe. The opening of the film features one such sequence in which Yin Shou leads the Hostage Brigade into battle against a proclaimed traitor. With a snowy mountain range as the background, it’s hard to tell where the practical sets/effects begin and the CG ones end (which is a great compliment), enabling the audience to understand the significance of what’s happening before us. With great speed and the inclusion of name/title cards that appear next to significant characters, Wuershan thrusts us into the fray, enabling us to see what makes Yin Shou revered, as well as setting the stage for the unfortunate tragedies to come. There’s a consistent seamlessness in presentation of each of the set pieces so that the audience never feels removed from the reality placed before us. The appearance of Kunlun, a city in Heaven, does have perhaps a bit too much sheen, trending toward falseness, and there’s a creature or two whose rendering could be more realistic; however, ultimately, the approach in presenting these characters and this world never fails to come off as so false that the audience disengages. A large reason for this being that the performances from the cast never exceed the intensity of the moment and the pacing of the script keeps things flowing where one feels the time. The one character with likely the least screentime and who makes the biggest impression is Naran as Su Daji, Yin Shou’s mistresses. She conveys more with her physical performance and presence than dialogue could and Wuershan makes her a dangerous yet alluring figure that all must combat and yet few seem to pin down.
However, it must be known that Kingdom of Storms is not for the casual viewer. There are plenty of films which can be described this way, but this is especially true here. If not for this reviewer’s prior experience with Light Chaser Animation’s films, as well as others who have adapted these tales, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why it matters that Jiang Ziya is joined by Yang Jian and Nezha on his journey to deliver the Fengshen Bang or, to be honest, what their names are as they aren’t specifically stated for some time after their introduction. Each of these three are considered to be highly respected parts of the Fengshen Yanyi, each used to explore a specific idea of chaos, balance, and self-determination, yet, in this film, they barely rate a title card. Granted, the focus on the film is directed to Yin Shou, Yin Jiao, Ji Fa, and Ji Chang (as I said, fathers and sons), but there’s a lot that isn’t explained or addressed so that casual viewers will be able to understand within a reasonable framework what’s happening or why it all matters. Case in point, a Letterboxd viewer mentions that this film rips off Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) because a character has a third eye and refers to an infant demon as “Baby Shrek” — two things which point to a cultural ignorance (though not necessarily malicious) of the source material. One can certainly enjoy the film, but they won’t get out of it what Wuershan intends without at least some kind of understanding.
Be advised that this review is based off of a screener provided by Well Go USA and watched on a 43-inch 4K LG television and not an in-theater viewing, so when I tell you that this is a film to see in the theater, it’s because it’s already visually impressive at home and seeing it as intended with the proper scale likely makes one feel the epicness of Wuershan’s vision. It appears that Kingdom of Storms is receiving an IMAX screening on September 20th, though it’s unclear if it will continue forward with that availability when it goes wider in U.S. theaters on September 22nd. So make sure to check your local theaters before snagging tickets to ensure you get the best possible version of this presentation. Especially when Yang Jian and Nezha get their spotlight or when conflict comes to a head for Yin Shou, I can only imagine how remarkable it’ll appear in IMAX. Just make sure you’ve done at least some light Googling before you go. I promise it’ll help.
In IMAX September 20th, 2023.
In select theaters September 22nd, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.