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‘New Gods: Yang Jian’ Fuses Ancient Chinese Folklore with Steampunk CG

Light Chaser’s second animated feature in their ‘New Gods’ series, hitting U.S. theaters January 20, aims to make Chinese mythology more engaging for young audiences, humanizing and contemporizing deities that have dominated folklore for centuries.

A little bit space cowboy, a little bit kung fu king, and armed with nothing more than his Nine-turns kung fu and magical harmonica, a reimaged Erlang Shen takes center stage in director Zhao Ji and Light Chaser Animation’s latest 3D animated fantasy feature, New Gods: Yang Jian. The film marks the second entry in the New Gods series from Ji, whose goal is to make Chinese history and mythology more engaging for young audiences and humanize the gods that have dominated China’s folklore for centuries. 

“We use the same heroes from our history, so they are still recognizable from stories we’ve been told, but we create a new original story to tell what these characters would look like in a different time period and in a different light,” says Ji. “For example, with Yang Jian, everyone knows him in China, but rarely as the main character in any stories and never in the way we’re portraying him now. This was our chance to create a more human Erlang and give a full perspective about his life and what he’s been through.”

New Gods: Yang Jian, distributed by GKIDS, releases in U.S. theaters Friday, January 20. The story takes place 13 years after the once powerful god Yang Jian (aka Erlang) imprisoned his sister beneath a mountain. Now scraping by as a penniless bounty hunter voyaging through the spirit world on a cosmic gas-powered ship with his motley crew of immortals, Yang Jian soon finds himself chasing down a familiar figure – his long-lost nephew Chenxiang – when a mysterious woman hires him to capture Chenxiang, who has stolen the magical and potentially catastrophic lotus lantern to free his mother. 

As Yang Jian travels between the steampunk spirit realm and the Jin Dynasty-age mortal realm as he confronts the actions of his past, the formerly esteemed general must face a host of dangerous vigilantes also seeking the lantern, which gives the power to alter the balance of the mortal and immortal worlds. 

“In China’s ancient history, we have a lot of heroes,” notes Ji. “And, for many years, we’ve had a traditional way of telling their stories. But, for our generation, we wanted to reimagine what we thought those heroes looked like and try to put them into a modern world, and a mortal world. These gods live forever, but what happens when they are faced with more human circumstances? That was one of the main reasons we wanted to make these movies.”

Light Chaser and Zhao have worked together on New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021), as well as White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021) films, all derived from Chinese history and folklore. Yan Jian, too, gained its inspiration from Chinese mythology, specifically from Xu Zhonglin’s semi-mythical novel Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義), sometimes translated as Investiture of the Gods or Enfeoffment of the Gods

This 100-chapter novel from the Ming Dynasty tells of the great struggle between the declining Shang (1600–1046 BCE) and ascending Zhou (1046–256 BCE) dynasties. Most of the story follows the countless battles between the forces of Shang and Zhou. Along the way, the latter are aided by immortals, including one by the name of Erlang (also called Yang Jian, 楊戩).

In Creation of the Gods, as well as Journey to the West (one of China's four great classical novels), Erlang Shen is the nephew of the Jade Emperor. In Creation of the Gods, he assists the Zhou army in defeating the Shang. In Journey to the West, he is the second son of a mortal and the Jade Emperor's sister Yaoji. In the legend, he is known as the greatest warrior god of heaven.

Light Chaser and Zhao’s film also derives inspiration from the 1999 animated film Lotus Lantern, where Erlang had a sister known as the Holy Mother of Mount Hua (Hua Shan). In the original film, she married a mortal man and scholar, Liu Yanchang. Together, they had a son by the name of Chenxiang. In that film, Erlang saw his sister’s marriage as an unlawful human-deity union and imprisoned her under Mount Hua. When Chenxiang came of age, he split the mountain with an axe to free his mother, but not before facing people who repeatedly tried to undermine his mission, most notably his own uncle Erlang.

But, as viewers will discover, Ji’s 2022 adaptation of the story, which features Erlang as the main character, takes a different, more human and emotional approach to Erlang as Yang Jian and reveals that, underneath the stoic and jaded exterior, there’s a soft heart of a mourning god who grieves for his sister and cares deeply for the nephew he was too weak to care for on his own.

“Female audiences in China now see Yang Jian as the perfect partner after seeing our film,” says Yu Zhou, Light Chaser co-founder and president, as well as producer on the latest New Gods film. “He’s still powerful but also more sensitive and very caring in our film. He has many more virtues.”

Light Chaser and Ji also worked hard to develop a spirit world that was more enticing to audiences as well. The labyrinth of floating temples, accompanied by metallic aircraft and projected neon signs, honors the traditions of Chinese culture while also adding some modern tech flare. The film also combines jazz, rock, electronic, and traditional Chinese music to further build the eclectic ambiance.

“There was a bit more risk when we were making Nezha Reborn, because it was the first time we were introducing this punk spirit world style and showing Nezha, who we originally knew as a military general, from a child to a youth on a motorbike,” explains Zhou. “It was such a change. But the feedback from China was quite encouraging and then it released on Netflix, and we got this positive feedback from all over the world. And so, we decided to take things even further with Yang Jian, so we’re excited to see how audiences respond to this one in different parts of the world.”

Ji is confident Yang Jian’s world-building will be well-received, not just based on the feedback from Chinese viewers, but also based on the feedback of their own animation team. 

“All the artists were looking forward to creating a new spirit world in the way we’ve imagined it,” Ji says. “We’re tired of the old way, the ancient way. We’ve seen the temples and people floating in the clouds. Most of the 300 people working at Light Chaser are young people under 30 and they want to do something new, something more founded on the future.”

But this is still Chinese folklore, and some scenes derived their movie magic from leaning into history. One scene, set in a place called the “Fairy Palace,” features a group of dancers putting on a show for spectators as they fly through the air in a dance wearing a more traditional variant of ancient Chinese robes. 

Check out an exclusive clip of how the scene was created here

“We were actually inspired by an Asian war painting called 'Dance at Dunhuang,' which is located in a Buddhist cave,” shares Ji. “I was shocked by the detail and how these artists imagined what the gods and spirit world looked like. I knew it would make for really pretty animation to have these dancers on the cave walls flying in a real palace.”

The scene leaves the character of Yang Jian, like audiences watching the film, as breathless as Ji was when he first saw the cave paintings. But, before these dazzling scenes could be produced, there were lots of blood, sweat, and tears from the production team. While the idea, on the surface, seemed a lot simpler than building a whole steampunk culture within the ancient heavens of Chinese gods, Zhou and Ji didn’t initially take into account how the long, wispy and delicate layers of Chinese clothing would factor into the animation. 

“When we did the first simulations, the clothing would always get stuck together during the dance,” says Zhou. “Our traditional Chinese clothing is complicated. There are many layers, sometimes up to even eight layers, of clothing. And it all needs to be floating in the air. We spent a lot of time and energy trying to create such an effect, with our animators having to reference dancers on the ground and translate that into the air.”

Ji adds, “I had no idea how hard it would be to make. We’re always trying to make things better and better than what we've done before.”

But for all the production challenges, Ji says the film stands as a testament to the beauty of Chinese culture, emphasized by the advances animation technology has made just in the last few years. 

“For example, when I first saw the modal of Yang Jian, we put him on the big screen beside Nezha’s model from the previous movie, and I said, ‘Wait, that Nezha isn’t the final model,’” remembers Ji. “The Yang Jian model looked so much better. When everyone told me Nezha’s model was actually the final version we used, I really saw how much animation technology had progressed.”

The animation advancements allowed Ji and Zhou to bring to life the highly stylized animation they would need for Yang Jian’s action sequences, which are less action and more spectacle of light, emotion, and slow-motion movement. 

Nezha was more of an action movie where we have a lot of car chase scenes and fight scenes,” recalls Ji. “Nowadays, it takes so many moves to kill people. But for Yang Jian, because he’s a very powerful, ancient hero, we focused more on making the action like martial arts, where they can do plenty of damage to someone with one punch. In this movie, we put more concentration on the feeling of the action, not on the action itself.”

The same is true for the film as a whole. Most of the focus was on how animation could be used to ignite a feeling, not just blow audiences away with how magnificent it looks. 

“I want them to have a glance at Chinese culture because I think we have a lot of beautiful fortune in our culture,” notes Ji. “One of the core themes is about family and about people who passed away, and what you feel for the people who passed away. In China, we have a culture that says people will come back once again after they’ve gone. That means your family who left you will come back, and they will always be around you, even though their physical body isn’t beside you. In your heart, they will give you strength and they will give you the energy to push you and accompany you all the way through your life.”

Zhao adds, “It’s about love. This big love. From Yang Jian’s perspective, he’s powerful because of his love for his family, his team, and the rest of the world. And everyone can understand and appreciate that feeling. Our team put our own hearts into making this film and I hope audiences can resonate with us.”

This year will be Light Chaser’s 10-year anniversary and they are excited to announce the newest addition to the New Gods universe, Chang’an Thirty Thousand Miles, coming summer of 2023. More details yet to be announced.

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at