Light Chaser Animation, the animation studio based out of Beijing, China, has built a fantastic world of stories across their animations White Snake, Green Snake, New Gods: Nezha Reborn, and now New Gods: Yang Jian. The studio has used beautiful animation and striking musical choices to bring Chinese mythology and legends to life. In New Gods: Yang Jian audiences travel to the immortal realm to meet Yang Jian and his story. Thirteen years after Yang Jian (known to some as Erlang Shen) imprisoned his sister beneath a mountain, the once powerful god now scrapes by as a penniless bounty hunter. When a mysterious woman hires him for a new job, Yang Jian soon finds himself chasing down a familiar figure. We got the chance to speak with director ZHAO Ji and Yu Zhou, the co-founder & president of Light Chaser and a producer on New Gods: Yang Jian.
When it comes to mythology, Light Chaser Animation showcases the depth, beauty, and power of China’s storytelling history. But to do that in animation and for audiences across the world, balancing the original against crafting something completely new is the key. Director Zhao explained, “The first thing with all of these stories is that because Chinese audiences are all familiar with the original ones, we love to stick on the characters. All of the characters and what they’ve already been through, and their personalities should all stay the same in these new stories. What we’re trying to do is not to repeat the traditional story but not change too much because they’re classic. So we have to find a new perspective and time period to tell these stories from.
“For example, in White Snake, our story takes place 500 years before the original story and show a younger version of the White Snake. For New Gods, we took a bigger risk because we put them into modern times. We did this because all of the gods and heroes can live for forever, so why not have them live among us? That’s the exciting starting point for out team and we want to tell a new story, in a new period, with the same core character. This way, audiences can connect to the character but have a new journey with our heroes as well.”
While the animation studio’s last mythological feature film New Gods: Nezha Reborn, was set mostly in the mortal realm, New Gods: Yang Jian is centered squarely in the Immortal Realm for the majority of its runtime. On the choice of setting New Gods: Yang Jian in the immortal realm Zhao explained, “Even though its the second movie of the series, it’s a prequel. It takes place in the middle. The original story took place 3000 years ago, Nezha Reborn is set in modern times, and this one is set in the middle. We want to give audiences a fuller picture of the whole world of the pantheon.”
Zhao continues, “For this movie, we have a god ranking system that is tied to the origins of all of our heroes. So every couple of years, the gods will rerank and this is the trigger for our films. For Yang Jian, that reranking is happening right now in the film. While this does mean you need a little background knowledge, we wanted to create a story where you could see things unfold for Western audiences instead of just needing to know the background.” President Yu adds, “We’re lucky that we have such a long history, 3000 years, that we can use to tell these stories.” And that mythological history is one I hope to see Light Chaser explore more with sequels.
But to build a world, you need fantastic characters, and there is no shorter of standouts in New Gods: Yang Jian. When asked who their favorite characters from the film are, the duo gave secondary characters the spotlight. Zhao answered, “I love our main character Yang Jian, but I also love Shen Gongbao. His character is the most different from the original story. In the original, we see the glory part of his life but in this movie, we see him in downtime. We know that he used to be a general, but here, he looks homeless; he’s a wanderer. What makes him different from the original story and what he’s been through helps build who he is. We see how his experiences made him who he is. Even though he looks like a bad guy, he has his huge heart.”
For Yu, Shen Gongbau was also at the top of his mind because of the audience response, “For Shen Gongbao, he also has his huge tiger and he’s liked by so many people. I get asked ‘He really died? Can you make him live again?’ But for me, outside of Yang Jian, I want to mention Xiaotian, the dog. We were very ambitious and bold to make her two different things. She’s a dog, and she’s a girl. Even though she has very little dialogue people have been very impressed. Chenxiang as well, he’s a teenager who is very strong-minded but also grows up a lot. But people can come in and see them and expect more in sequels.”
If you’ve had a chance to see New Gods: Yang Jian, then you know that its score from Guo Haowei, the film’s composter, is also what helps it stand above other animated films. Music moves the story as much as dialogue or action. Zhao explains, “Music is an international thing, and when you hear music like jazz it’s thrilling and emotive. You can feel thrilled, or chill, or even sad. Yang Jian is a blue guy, his clothes, his attitude, he is sad. So using jazz and blues, combining them with Chinese elements like instruments and tempo it all just fit. When you look at Nezha, he was a punk, so we used rock and punk for him. So, I feel like the music is all about expressing the characters.
“The idea at the beginning of the movie, we always had this fighting style in mind. Some Chinese gods have an instrument as their weapon, so we had to think about how they would use. We have to see them play music while also hitting someone. During the fight, one character uses a traditional Chinese instrument, and Yang Jian uses a harmonica. It’s a clash between two different worlds. We talked to our composer and said, ‘You’re crazy. Why would you put these two sounds together?’ But we asked him to make the music before we made any animation at all. When we began animating, we had the music all at once and then mapped the fight choreography onto it, changing the versions along the way. With different notes, we had to balance them against each other. It was difficult, but it was also fun. Personally, I was extremely excited about this fight,” Zhao said.
“Music is such a strong part of our film,” Yu added, “You can notice from the music of our film that we put a lot of Asian influences throughout it. We’ve worked with our composer for over 10 years. We hope that our audiences will also enjoy the characters and story, but also the music and the sounds of the film. Hopefully, they can get to see it in an IMAX theater.”
That said, the spirit of New Gods: Yang Jian is one that pushes the boundaries of what’s expected of you. Zhao added context, “I think for our generation, we grew up watching a lot of punk movies. Punk is more than just an art style, I also think its a spirit. For our movie, punk is a way to express freedom. The punk spirit is about the fight and the revolution sometimes. This fits the theme of our story and our world in New Gods. In each movie in New Gods, each god has their fate and responsibilities to the world. But punk elements help push that story to be more.”
This punk spirit is only part of how the film came to be so unique in its representation of the Immortal Realm. The other? Well, practicality of being told from a modern perspective. Zhao added, “In China, the original paintings and storytelling put the spirit world as the original Chinese temple and the way that the god got around were flying on clouds from one place to another. But at that time, they never looked up into the sky because they didn’t have planes or aircrafts, and they didn’t see Star Wars. But for our generation, we have that knowledge so why not make a new way for the spirit world to operate.”
But what really makes New Gods: Yang Jian stand out is Light Chaser Animation’s deft hand at crafting beautiful and dynamic scenes. For Zhao and Yu, their favorites also mark some of the most breathtaking moments of the film. Zhao explained, “I choose the scene in the final act where all three characters fall into the Taiji Scroll. In the original story, this is a weapon and all that you’re told is that there is chaos inside where people disappear. When you hear this, you don’t know how to create it. How do you create chaos with no other hints?”
As Zhao explains, it’s clear why the Taiji Scroll-world scene at the end of the film packed such a big punch because we’ve truly never seen it before. Zhao added, “We chose the ink style of Chinese painting because Taiji, the weapon’s name, is like Yin and Yang, black and white. So we tried to make the world into a black-and-white chaos world. But before us, no one had tried to make a CGI animated ink world, which made it really challenging. We didn’t know before we did it if we could even make it. The final version is one that I’m very proud of because we make audiences really believe that they’ve fallen into an ink painting world.”
For Yu, his favorite scenes were “Wanlou’s dance is the one that I choose. Wanlou’s dance scene with beautiful music and fairies in the air is actually based on a famous cave in Western China. In it, there are many paintings of Dunhuang dances from the original time of Yang Jian’s story. We used that as inspiration to bring it to life. The other scene I’d choose is Yang Jian’s chase scene at very start of the film. In that one, you can get a feeling of the eye-opening new world in this film and the immortal realm in general.”
When it comes down to it, the filmmaking passion, the love of music, and the joy and pride in Chinese myth shine in this conversation and New Gods: Yang Jian in general. If you haven’t head to the theater yet, now is your chance. Not to mention this attention to emotion, adaptation, and music is just as present in Light Chaser Animation’s other takes on mythology which can all be watched on Netflix as of the writing of this interview.
New Gods: Yang Jian is playing in select theaters across the United States.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.