After an 8 year absence, visual stylist Wuershan returns to cinema screens with the epic fantasy actioner Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms. His first feature since Mojin: The Lost Legend (2015), Creation of the Gods is a massive undertaking, with this only being the first entry in his planned trilogy. It is reportedly the most expensive film production in Chinese history, and watching the final product it isn’t hard to see where the money went.
The film is a reworking of the famed novel Investiture of the Gods aka Fengshen Yanyi, which is a highly fictionalized retelling of the overthrow of historical ruler King Zhou, where it mixes true life historical facts with more fantastical elements i.e. gods and demons. I am probably doing the book a disservice to generalize it in such terms, but many readers may be unaware of the source material, myself included. Whilst I have heard of the novel and seen some adaptations, I have never actually read it with my only knowledge being what I have seen on screen.
Some may have previously seen the likes of League of Gods (2016), an earlier and less successful adaptation which featured martial arts superstar Jet Li in a supporting role. More successful are the animated Ne Zha (2019) and its sequel Jiang Ziya (2020), both of which are visually stunning and filled with fantasy action.
Wuershan’s take on the material is definitely the most ambitious yet, so much so he needs three films to tell the story, with the first entry clocking in at a lengthy 148 minutes. During the opening moments of the film we are introduced to young hostage warrior Ji Fa (Yu Shi), the narrator of our story. He serves as a royal guard to Prince Yin Shou (Kris Phillips), with him, the Prince and their army about to attack the city of Jizhou where defector Su Hu is holding up.
The Prince along with his hostage warriors manage to breach the city through carrying out a death defying cavalry charge, with them ensuing to wipe out Su Hu’s entire clan, with only his daughter Su Daji (Narana Erdyneeva) mysteriously surviving, even though it appeared she committed suicide. Taken prisoner by Shou, it isn’t long before it becomes apparent that Daji isn’t exactly human, quickly bewitching Shou.
Returning home, it isn’t long before tragedy rears its head with tragedy befalling Shou’s father and brother, forcing him to ascend to the throne. During Shou’s crowning ceremony a curse is foretold, with the only way to stop this being for Shou to sacrifice himself. In order to please the Gods, Shou agrees to this sacrifice.
During this, the Gods of Kunlun are deciding if they should release the sacred Investiture Scroll (Fengshen Bang), which has the power to restore order and save the world from the curse. Jiang Ziya (Huang Bo) agrees to give up his immortality and special abilities so he can deliver the scroll. Traveling to earth, Jiang is about to offer the scroll to King Shou only to quickly realize how amoral and manipulative he is. Jiang decides it would be a catastrophe for mankind if a man like Shou ever acquired the scroll.
This of course enrages King Shou with him pulling out all stop to get a hold of the scroll whilst at the same time becoming more crazed. It isn’t long before he is turning against his own family on his quest for power, with him not allowing anyone to step in his way. Ultimately it will be up to a unique few to put a stop to him before it’s too late.
Already it is being reported that Creation of the Gods is the Chinese equivalent of Lord of the Rings, which is made even clearer with the inclusion of that series producer Barrie M. Osborne, whose name is prominently shown as production consultant. This does the film no favors as it brings about an air of expectation that the completed film would struggle to reach.
I have noted many favorable reviews online, stating that Creation of the Gods is one of the finest Chinese fantasies ever produced. Obviously this is hyperbolic, as while there is no denying that the film is visually stunning, it doesn’t hit everything out of the park. A script filled with expository dialogue which results in serious pace issues doesn’t exactly help matters, with the assorted cast doing their hardest to overcome this albeit some more successful than others, with a range of performances that range from great to merely adequate.
It doesn’t help that for the most part the characters are very hard to warm to, and this includes the heroes. The most obvious culprit is Yu Shi’s Ji Fa who appears to be one of the most gullible and naive heroes I have come across. On countless occasions he sees Phillips King Shou commit murder and other kind of atrocities to only deny that he is a villain. It gets ridiculous how much evil Shou has to commit before Ji Fa comes to the conclusion that maybe King Shou isn’t the righteous hero he believes him to be.
Ji Fa isn’t the only character to do this, with many of Shou’s men following suit, unconvinced he could be anything other than their righteous King. Yu Shi does well enough in the role of Ji Fa, with some allowances given considering this is his first acting role. Saying this, even the most veteran actors would probably struggle with the role of Ji Fa, with the issues being more inherent in the writing than the actor.
Narana Erdyneeva likewise doesn’t get much to play with her, with her possessed Su Daji not really asked to do much other than look alluring, which to be fair she does fairly well. It is at least understandable why she appears to change King Shou’s way of thinking. Perhaps she will get more to do in the ensuing sequels.
Faring better is a rare film appearance from Kris Philips as the duplicitous King Shou. Credited under his Chinese name Fei Xiang, Philips makes for a great villain, with his charismatic performance overshadowing the majority of his young co-stars. His character gets a terrific introduction, showing Shou to be both brave and ruthless. Leading his men to victory, it would be easy to believe that his character may be the film’s lead hero if you had no prior knowledge of the character. However it isn’t long before he is turning his men against one another in his quest for power. I did like how Wuershan keeps the mystery going whether Shou is a true villain or if it is because he is under the spell of Daji.
This marks the second time Philips has collaborated with Wuershan, with him previously appearing in the fantasy sequel Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012), although his screen time was considerably shorter compared to his role here. Chen Kun who co-starred with him in the Painted Skin sequel also makes a short appearance, with his role presumably being extended in the forthcoming parts of the trilogy.
They aren’t the only previous collaborators of Wuershan to have a role, with the award winning Huang Bo almost running away with the film as Jiang Ziya. Whilst his screen time is somewhat limited he certainly makes an impression, with him being one of only a handful of characters that come across as likeable. In many ways Jiang is very much the film’s conscience and voice of reason, with him showing more compassion than his human counterparts.
Huang Bo’s Jiang Ziya is assisted in his scenes by Cisha’s Yang Jian and Wu Yafan’s Nezha, with their special abilities helping the now human Jiang out of many scrapes. Their handful of action scenes manage to inject some much needed energy every time the feel begins to lull.
When it comes to the action, it’s a mixture of grounded battles featuring some fine martial arts and swordplay choreography with more fantastical elements coming in the form of the Gods and Demons which are at the core of the story. The standout action scene is clearly the action packed finale which finally has Ji Fa becoming the hero we’ve been waiting for, taking on not only an army of soldiers but a massive statue come to life.
In order to achieve these fantastical elements, Wuershan employs an assortment of CGI effects which vary in quality. Whilst some of the effects are no doubt impressive, such as the mentioned statue coming to life, whereas others look as if they have come straight from a Playstation game.
The quality set design and costumes thankfully make up for any lackluster CGI, with the beautiful cinematography of Wang Yu perfectly showcasing the fine work these craftsmen have carried out. The quality of the visuals are hardly surprising when taking into consideration director Wuershan’s previous work.
Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms may not be the perfect fantasy as some would have you believe, with many of the characters leaving me cold. Even so, there is enough well done action and spectacle on display to keep most fantasy lovers entertained, with Wuershan leaving us wanting more as the credits roll. I look forward to seeing where the next entry takes us and hopefully the drawbacks on show here will be minimized with its sequel.
Plot: 3.5/5 Acting: 3.5/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.5/5