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Deity Defying

2020-12-21

汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2020年6期
关键词:苍生姜子牙

Is it right to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of many? This age-old moral dilemma gets a 3D computer-animated treatment in directors Cheng Teng and Li Weis fantasy film Jiang Ziya, or Legend of Deification, which updates an ancient historical figure with Chinese mythology and modern ethical questions over fate.

The long-awaited blockbuster, originally scheduled for release prior to the Spring Festival in January, finally hit the big screen on October 1 for Chinas “Golden Week” holiday after months of delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Featuring a fictional version of Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), a military strategist born in the 12th century BCE, the plot is loosely based on the novel The Investiture of the Gods from the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), in which the historical Jiang appears as the ruler of all gods.

Unlike the snowy-haired, white-bearded portrayals of ancient sages in most movies, this version of Jiang is middle aged. A top commander in the divine Kunlun army, he is ordered to execute the menacing Nine-Tailed Fox Demon, who poses a grave threat to the existence of humankind. But upon discovering that the Fox Demon shares the body of an innocent young girl named Jiu, Jiang decides to disobey Heavens edict, and sets the girl free before killing the beast, for which he is deprived of his immortality and banished to the mortal realm.

Ten years later, Jiang still believes he made the right decision. At a tavern, he meets a girl with fox-like ears who resembles Jiu, and accompanies her on a journey to seek her father while trying to figure out the mystery of her identity, and questioning heavens laws and his own morals in the past.

The adventure epic raked in 360 million RMB on its first day, the biggest-ever single day box office intake for a homegrown animated feature. Sharing the same producer with 2019s Ne Zha, with years of development and thousands of staff working on its art design, Jiang Ziya was expected to continue the upswing of the domestic animation industry started by the 2019 film, which was unexpectedly well-received abroad and became the second-highest grossing film of all time in China.

In a clear echo of Ne Zha, Jiang Ziya asserts that true heroes make their own destiny, regardless of what fate decrees. Ne Zha is born as a demon, but finds his humanity, while Jiang Ziya questions the gods concern for mortals and finally defies the Heavens to free humankind from their control. These profound themes have divided critics opinions, with some dismissing them as unrealistic, while others applauded what they saw as efforts by an animated movie to tell stories not merely for children.

The spectacular epic, however, still suffers from weak storytelling, spending most of the time on atmosphere and action sequences. Why did Jiu insist on seeking her father? Why does Jiang Ziya help her? What role does King Zhou of Shang, another historical figure who makes a cameo in the movie, play in the plot development? Instead of having backstories, Jiu and other characters seem to be tools that help show the compassion of Jiang, causing confusion among many who viewed the film.

Despite impressively elegant scenes, the lack of narrative and character complexity make the film fall flat. And in spite of its flying start, Jiang Ziyas box office began to drop below 10 million RMB on its 12th day, with disappointed audiences citing lackluster execution of the plot, while Ne Zha still enjoyed 100 million RMB more than two weeks after release.

Nevertheless, the film is a game effort at injecting Chinese domestic movies with more diversified and mature themes. Reviving mythological figures like Jiang Ziya and Ne Zha has provided a fresh perspective for audiences on history and culture, and could be the secret ingredient for the domestic animation industry to shake off the perceptions of childishness and rival movies from abroad.

–  Yang Tingting (楊婷婷)

The Master: The sacrificing of one can save all.

Sh~z$n: Sh` y# r9n, 9r ji& c`ngsh8ng.

师尊:杀一人,而救苍生。

Jiang: If we sacrificed one, how is that saving all?

Ji`ng: B% ji& y# r9n, h9y@ jiu c`ngsh8ng?

姜:不救一人,何以救苍生?

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