Evil tyrant King Zhou (Tony Leung Kar-Fai) strikes a deal for ultimate power with malevolent fox spirit Daji (Fan Bingbing) who adopts the guise of his beautiful concubine. Outside the city, warriors of the heroic Ji Clan, including Lei Zhenzi (Huang Xiao Ming) a survivor of the Adept tribe with electricity-zapping superpowers, launch a raid to free the imprisoned Invisible People, a peaceful tribe with powerful magic Daji intends to use to conquer the world. The heroes are opposed by Zhou's most formidable warrior: Shen Gong Bao (Louis Koo) who rides a magical black leopard and is both an awesome shape-shifter and genius at inventing high-tech weapons. Luckily all-powerful good wizard Jiang Ziya (Jet Li, sporting a wizardly white beard) flies to their rescue. But he is struck by Daji's 'age reversal' spell that makes him grow younger each time he uses his powers. After a narrow escape, Jiang reveals to defeat Daji, Lei must retrieve the fabled Sword of Light. To aid Lei on his epic quest, Jiang bestows him with three magical gifts: a talking one-eyed plant called Magic Grass who dispenses helpful advice, the blue-skinned infant Third Dragon Prince and naughty kung fu baby god Na Cha the Great (Wen Zhang). As penance for his bad behaviour Na Cha guides Lei through numerous magical misadventures. Along the way Lei receives further help from the beautiful Blue Butterfly (AngelaBaby). Smitten he has no idea she is really a mechanical robot created by Shen Gong Bao as a spy. But the villains did not count on the power of love.
If nothing else the team behind League of Gods could teach the makers of Gods of Egypt (2016) how to do a multi-million dollar, all-star, CGI laden mythological fantasy right. On the surface there is not a lot to separate this costly Hong Kong-Chinese production from that instantly notorious Hollywood flop. Both are overblown, soulless, computer effects driven extravaganzas preoccupied with spectacle at the expense of coherent storytelling. The difference is: Gods of Egypt is a witless bore while League of Gods is an often hilarious OTT, rollicking fun romp. Animator turned live action director Koan Hui On eschews the photo-realist style aesthetic adhered to by western special effects films. He opts for a more painterly use of computer graphics including a pleasingly broad colour palette and an endearingly wild imagination. You certainly won't find a Hollywood special effects blockbuster that features a fight scene where a CGI kung fu baby subdues an undersea army of fish-faced mer-folk using toxic farts and a jet-stream of pee as super-weapons!
Although promoted as "China's X-Men" (the Bryan SingerX-Men films are interestingly popular and influential in China in a way other franchises like Marvel movies or Star Wars are not), League of Gods is actually a literary adaptation. It is based on 'Fengshen Yanyi', a Sixteenth century novel ranked alongside Journey to the West and The Water Margin as one of the classic works of the 'gods and demons' genre from the Ming Dynasty. While adapted several times for Hong Kong television and the inspiration behind numerous HK comic books or manhua, this marks its first outing on the big screen. In terms of production the film is undeniably state-of-the-art but as a narrative it is archaic, bogged down in the starchy structure of a traditional mythological yarn. Compared to the sociopolitical and psychological nuances HK New Wave filmmakers of the Nineties brought to fast-paced wu xia fantasies like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) or The Bride with White Hair (1992), League of Gods sports the stoic heroism, one-dimensional morality and flowery philosophizing one would expect from a Shaw Brothers Huangmei Opera from the early Sixties.
However, the tragic love story between idealistic Lei and innocent, unknowing robot double agent Blue Butterfly injects a small but welcome dose of human emotion amidst the onslaught of special effects with a grand romantic payoff. On top of that the wacky comedic antics of Lei and his computer animated companions Magic Grass, Third Eye Prince (whose musical numbers are just plain adorable) and naughty little Na Cha add a welcome cartoon counterbalance to the overly stoic superheroism. Na Cha, the same mythological hero portrayed by Seventies superstar Alexander Fu Sheng in the Shaw Brothers fantasy Na Cha the Great (1974), is a wholly lovable and spectacularly well-animated presence as a CGI kung fu baby. Less so when embodied as a grownup by actor Wen Zhang. Interestingly the original choice for the role was actress Cecilia Cheung (at one point the biggest star in HK cinema prior to a string of career-wrecking scandals) who was unceremoniously flung off the production owing to alleged bad behaviour on set, thus derailing another comeback.
While the younger cast members give colourless performances (though it is worth noting, this un-emotive style of acting, influenced by hugely popular Korean soap operas, is often embraced by fans) the more seasoned performers hold their own against the special effects. From Fan Bingbing's sensual evil to Jet Li's gonzo, scenery chewing turn in the sort of role Sammo Hung would have romped through three decades earlier. In terms of pure spectacle League of Gods is undeniably a feast for the senses. It is no exaggeration to say not a second passes without some crazy new visual wonder (monsters, superpowers, gadgets, spaceships – yes, this movie has spaceships) appears to dazzle our eyes. Legendary cinematographer Arthur Wong, who shot some of the greatest HK movies ever made, makes a welcome return with his hyper-kinetic camera performing even more phenomenal acrobatics than the martial arts gifted heroes. While the narrative is shaky, League of Gods never commits the cardinal sin of being dull and remains undeniably impressive as an example of the Chinese film industry flexing its blockbuster muscles.