How Mythological Stories are Taking Over Cinema in China

By Bryan Grogan, March 24, 2020

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As a country with millennia of history, culture and legends, Chinese directors have long held a love for tales that invoke mythical characters, both for the TV screen and for movie audiences. The notable success of a number of films based around myths has inspired production companies such as Enlight Media, and its subsidiary Colorroom Pictures, which was established back in 2015 specifically to make animated pictures.

The growth of interest in, and interconnected nature of mythological films has been compared to the Marvel extended universe, with some within film circles seemingly hopeful of constructing a similarly lucrative franchise. One such upcoming series, the Fengshen Trilogy, has been compared to the Lord of the Rings. Taking inspiration from a 16th Century novel called The Investiture of the Gods, production on the Fengshen Trilogy will involve a crew of around 7,000 people. 

Given the enormous success that animated film Ne Zha achieved in 2019, it looks as though the market for animated films based around mythological characters will continue to grow. With the supposed spiritual successor to Ne Zha, Legend of Deification, soon to hit cinemas around China (after being delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak), the continued push behind animated mythological films shows no sign of letting up.

Here are some of the more recent mythological films that have paved the way for Chinese cinemagoers’ rabid interest in mythological movies.

Monkey King: Hero is Back (2015)

Image via @Beijing Weiying Shidai Technology Co/IMDb

Taking the beloved story of Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, as its basis, this charming kids movie sees Sun Wukong freed by a young child after being imprisoned for 500 years for acting the – well – monkey. The story shows the maturation of the hero as he works to save a village from the assault of monsters. Based on the endlessly inspiring 16th century novel, Journey to the West, the legend of the Monkey King has been remade numerous times, but never has it looked so good as it did in this computer animated movie.

Big Fish and Begonia (2016)

Big Fish & BegoniaImage via @B&T/IMDb

With a visual style that has often been compared to the work of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli films, Big Fish and Begonia wowed audiences upon its release back in 2016. The film is in parts based around the Taoist philosophy of Zhuangzi, and also an ancient Chinese text called Classic of Mountain and Seas, which is believed to have been in existence since 4BC. The film tells of a dolphin-girl who sacrifices her immortality to save a boy, traveling between realms to the land of the Others. The gorgeous film gives viewers an appreciation for humanity and natural life, with the imagery of aquatic animals taking on deific powers.

White Snake (2019)

white-snake.jpgImage via @Light Chaser Animation Studios/IMDb

The fourth film by Beijing-based Light Chaser Animations, which was founded in 2013 by Gary Wong and has been compared to Pixar in the past, takes inspiration from a famed Chinese folk tale called Legend of the White Snake. One of the Four Classic Folk Tales, it tells the story of a chaotic union between snake spirit and a human. This retelling of the story positions itself as a prequel to the original folk classic, depicting how the two central characters – snake spirit and princess Blanca and her beau A Xuan – fell in love. Giving the story a modern twist, the pair endures one catastrophe after another as their romance blossoms.

Ne Zha (2019)

Nezha.jpgImage via Coco Cartoon/IMDb

A quirky and fun movie, Ne Zha tells the story of the young deific character who cannot help but get himself into trouble. Possessed of fantastic strength, the young boy is feared and reviled by his neighbors, when all he wants to do is make friends and have fun. In a heartwarming twist, Ne Zha rises to save his community from an assault by demons. By far and away the most successful movie within this category, Ne Zha was even nominated by China for the Best International Film at the 2020 Academy Awards. While the movie didn’t make the cut, the intent behind the nomination shows how much prestige this class of films has within China right now. Soon to be followed by Legend of Deification of the Gods, Ne Zha may end up being the first of a successful franchise in its own right.

[Cover image via @B&T/IMDb ]

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