Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (2023) Review

Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (2023) Review

“Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms” Theatrical Poster

Director: Wu Ershan
Cast: Kris Phillips, Narana Eryeneeva, Huang Bo, Yafan Wu, Ci Sha, Yu Shi, Li Xuejian, Chen Muchi
Running Time: 148 min.

By Paul Bramhall 

There was a time in the mid-2010’s when the Mainland Chinese film industry seemed to be obsessed with producing big budget CGI driven fantasy spectacles, with what felt like a new title being announced with alarming frequency. One such example was 2016’s League of the Gods, an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel titled Investiture of the Gods, that combined real history with Chinese myth. Planned as the first in a series, the production came with an all-star cast of popular faces from the era, including the likes of Tony Leung Ka Fai, Fan Bingbing, Louis Koo, and Jet Li. However a further instalment never came, in what’s widely believed to be down to the tax evasion scandal Fan Bingbing found herself embroiled in during 2018, in which it was discovered she was using ‘yin-yang contracts’ to divert payments through a company she owned to lower the tax she had to pay.

The scandal had wider implications though, with the Chinese fantasy flick practically disappearing overnight. The reasons behind the abrupt drought of CGI spectacles were largely believed to be a result of film studios turning inwards, allowing them to frantically ensure their financial records would pass a government audit, which many were expecting was on the way thanks to Fan Bingbing’s misdemeanour. While many such productions could hardly be called stellar pieces of filmmaking, personally I was looking forward to director Koan Hui On’s continuation of Investiture of the Gods on the big screen, having found League of Gods to be a superlative example of the genre being done well. That’ll now never happen, but thankfully in 2023 it would appear enough time has passed for the big budget fantasy spectacle to return, and once more it’s an adaptation of Investiture of the Gods that marks the occasion.

The release of Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms is the first in the intended Fengshen Trilogy (although as recent history has taught us, that’s not a guarantee it’ll be one), and weighs in with an epic runtime just shy of 150 minutes. Marking the return to the director’s chair of Mongolian native Wu Ershan for a 4th time, after debuting with the unruly The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman in 2010, Ershan’s subsequent features both belong to that distinctly 2010’s slew of CGI fantasy flicks. In 2012 he helmed Painted Skin: The Resurrection, and in 2015 he directed Mojin: The Lost Legend. While Ershan’s filmography has been blank since his 2015 outing, the 8 years that have passed were in fact spent working on Creation of the Gods, with Kingdom of Storms (which started filming in 2017) obviously having a lot riding on it in terms of needing to be a success.

With a packed cast also comes an equally packed plot, especially considering the source material, of which it’d be easy to spend the rest of the review detailing. However the in-a-nutshell version essentially involves a righteous king, who gradually become corrupted through the surviving daughter of one of his enemies. Although it appears in the opening she commits suicide, during the epic battle that surrounds it we see her body become possessed by a fox spirit. Events lead to a Great Curse being placed upon the land, and it’s believed that a divine scroll called the Fengshen Bang could lift it, however when the king hears of the scrolls ability to turn mortals into Gods, he becomes obsessed with getting his hands on it no matter what the cost. In the end it comes down to a pair of his once loyal soldiers, and a trio sent from the heavens (which includes Na Cha and his flaming wheel shoes!), to stop his increasingly murderous ways.

Unlike the star power of League of the Gods, Ershan’s approach was to cast mostly unknowns, a surprising move for such a big budget production, but one that pays off thanks to the level of preparation that was invested, with many of the cast attending a 6-month training camp to get in shape and refine their skills. Of particular note is the return of popular 80’s Mandarin pop star Kris Phillips as the king, who apart from playing supporting roles in Ershan’s Painted Skin: The Resurrection and Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 2, has been missing from the big screen since the 1980’s. The half American half Chinese Phillips makes for a commanding presence onscreen, conveying a rugged masculinity which is played off well against the feigned innocence of newcomer Narana Eryeneeva. The fox spirit possessed seductress provides Eryeneeva her debut role, and despite her inexperience, she owns the screen whenever she’s on it.

Elsewhere the ever-present Huang Bo (Europe Raiders, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons) shows up as one of the trio of God’s sent to Earth with the scroll, the catch being that touching the scroll means he foregoes his God status and becomes a mere mortal again. Flanked by the child version of Na Cha and warrior god Yang Jian (played by newcomers Yafan Wu and Ci Sha respectively), Bo brings a welcome streak of humor to proceedings in his limited screen time, frequently forgetting he no longer has any powers, and a handful of genuinely laugh out loud lines. Seeing Na Cha and Yang Jian brought to life through the extensive special effects is also a joy to behold, with the pair given several opportunities to utilise their godly powers.

Indeed despite the lengthy runtime CotGI:KoS (as I’ll refer to it from here on in) is a breathless affair, with a kinetic action sequence never too far away. The initial hour is certainly guilty of attempting to cram a little too much in for audiences to digest everything that’s thrown at them, with an almost endless parade of names appearing onscreen, and an opening exposition dump done via narration that feels like it could have been a movie itself. However the narrative eventually settles down to focus on a handful of characters, and once it does its all the better for it, allowing for the audience to at least have a surrogate to navigate the chaos, coming in the form of one of the soldiers who begins to question the king’s motives. Played by newcomer Yu Shi, we learn that he’s the son of one of four ‘Dukes’ who reside over territories, and to keep them in check the king has taken one of their sons each who he trains as if they’re his own.

Although not apparent at first, as the narrative expands Shi is gradually positioned as the main character, and while we don’t necessarily get to see his acting skills stretched very far in this initial instalment, he makes for a likeable presence and certainly looks the part thanks to his frequently on show chiselled torso. By the time it gets to the action finale that takes up the best part of 20 minutes we’re into all out kaiju territory, as towering statues are brought to life and winged demons appear from the sky, all of which plays out in what feels like a fully realised world thanks to the expansive production design (it was reported that a crew of over 10,000 worked on the production in total).

Sure enough a look at the lengthy credits (which includes 2 post-credit sequences, so while they may run for 10 minutes, ensure to stick around!) indicates that there was plenty of overseas talent also brought in to bring CotGI:KoS to life. Most notably Barrie Osborne, who was a producer on The Lord of the Rings, is in onboard as a production consultant, and frequent Ang Lee scribe James Schamus also receives a script consultant credit. What’s perhaps most interesting for a Chinese production is that Ershan has also looked overseas for the action choreography, bringing in stuntmen Steven A. Davis (The Warrior’s Way, Interceptor) and Tim Wong (Shadow in the Cloud, Ghost in the Shell) as fight choreographers, who both deliver the goods.

While some audiences will likely find Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms a shallow exercise in spectacle with a bewilderingly complex plot, others will find it to be a relentlessly entertaining ride into a world of Chinese mythology that rarely lets up for its duration. For me, I found myself squarely falling into the latter, and certainly hope we’ll be paying another visit to the Creation of the Gods sooner rather than later.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10