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The high-toned Chinese martial/action-fantasy “Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms” arrives in the US after a couple of months at the top of the Chinese box office. It’s the first movie in a planned trilogy and one of a few recent maximalist adventures based partly on or very loosely inspired by the 16th-century mythological epic “The Investiture of the Gods.” Turns out that there’s room for at least one more story about chin-stroking gods and saber-rattling humans, mostly because “Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms” doesn’t cover the exact same ground as other more immortal/deity-focused Chinese genre movies.
Like most post-"Lord of the Rings” movie fantasies, “Creation of the Gods I” focuses on a power struggle for an all-powerful whatsit: the Fengshen Bang, a divine scroll that, in the hands of the King of All Realms, can turn mortals and monsters into gods. Unfortunately, the Fengshen Bang is controlled by the paranoid and greedy King Zhou (Kris Phillips) and his manipulative queen, Su Daji (Naran), who may or may not be possessed by a fox demon. King Zhou has a few loyal soldiers at his command, the second sons of his kingdom’s four Dukes. They’re all good, filial men dressed in white-and-gold armor and riding fine white computer-generated steeds. In time, the King’s top men realize that they must re-examine the oaths that they’ve made to their kingdom and its top guy.
A trio of gods tries to help all the Dukes’ men, led by sensitive but interchangeable heroes like Yin Jiao (Luke Chen) and Ji Fa (Yosh Yu). But this movie’s immortals are mostly comic relief. The god squad includes everybody’s favorite boy tyrant, Ne Zha (Yafan Wu), a troublemaking hothead who’s become as emblematic of the various “Investiture of the Gods” adaptations/spinoffs as the Monkey King was for the many “Journey to the West”-inspired and adjacent movies of the 2010s. There’s also the meddlesome (but ingratiating!) elder Jiang Ziya, played by Bo Huang, the seemingly inescapable comedic actor turned Chinese movie industry figurehead (he’s good as the mentor/coach in this year’s breakdancing dramedy “One and Only”). These side characters are so familiar to the movie’s domestic target audience that they only occasionally step in to perk up the otherwise pokey plot.
That said, Ji Fa and Yin Jiao are the audience’s surrogates, and their actions mostly hint at unexplored emotional depths. Only King Zhou seems to go through a full cycle of feelings with his queen. In an especially gripping scene, Zhou is forced to reckon with the queen’s treachery but ultimately decides not to punish her. This emotional complexity is mostly absent from “Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms.” Ji Fa and Yin Jiao otherwise putter around, contemplating how they can accomplish what obviously needs doing.
You can tell that this would-be tentpole’s script was punched up and rewritten a few times to give it greater cogency and dramatic urgency, not just because American screenwriting guru James Schamus’ script consultant credit gets prominent placement during the opening credits. There’s still a lot more expository dialogue here than you might be willing to wade through, especially given how little forward momentum this movie has.
Granted, “Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms” has a fairly low bar to clear, given its mid- to late-year release. It doesn’t really deliver anything that the bigger and better 2023 Chinese blockbusters already haven’t, not after the blackly comic Song dynasty conspiracy thriller “Full River Red” or the already conventional sci-fi prequel “The Wandering Earth 2.” But while “Creation of the Gods I” is not yet a personal, let alone essential, series, you can see glimpses of the epic that director Wuershan has arguably been working his way up to since “The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman,” his wildly uneven, but occasionally disarming 2010 breakthrough.
It’s hard to recommend the two-and-a-half-hour-long “Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms” to anybody except the already curious. It’s atmospheric and never boring, despite never being as assured or as focused as it could be. A few standout moments do, however, make Ji Fa and the boys’ dilemma seem somewhat more complicated, like when one character spells out the movie’s central premise: "Remember, it doesn't matter whose son you are. What matters is who you are."
I don’t believe that these square-jawed characters or their lofty concerns are strong enough to pave the way for what comes next, either for China’s ever-looming global box office takeover or their filmmakers, some of whom struggle to synthesize Western genre conventions and marketing strategies to create the next big Chinese money-maker. There’s a lot to like in “Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms,” but you might still think of other (and better) recent movies.
Now playing in theaters.