It's been a few years now since Hong Kong cinema fully embraced CG and it seems there's no stopping this trend. The current onslaught of CG fantasy blockbusters is almost mind-numbing, a continuous stream of kitsch and ugliness firmly keeping international interest at bay. Koan Hui's Feng Shen Bang [League of Gods] is the latest to join the hype, but contrary to my expectations I actually enjoyed this one. Your mileage may vary though, as spirited CG-bashers still have plenty to complain about.
If the name Koan Hui doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. Even though he's anything but a novice, he's been actively keeping himself out of the spotlights for the past 25 years. He did however work as second/assistant director on quite a few high-profile martial arts/fantasy films (most notably Ching Se and Shin Liu Ni Liu) and moved on to visual effects supervisor from there (working on films like The Legend of Zu, SPL and Dragon Tiger Gate). He's often seen as Hark Tsui's protégé and it shows in Feng Shen Bang.
Feng Shen Bang is an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel, but don't expect anything too serious or historical. The film is an unbelievable mishmash of classic and modern fantasy elements and then some. It's hard to imagine this is a faithful rendition of the original novel, then again I'm not quite familiar with 16th century Chinese literature so take it as an educated guess. What I do know is that it's completely bonkers from start to finish, which I consider an immense asset for a fantasy film.
There is a plot, but it's pretty complex and convoluted and not much time is spent explaining things in detail. It may be a bit easier to grasp if you're familiar with the source material, but for most it'll be easiest to just go with the flow. In short, a nine-tailed fox disguised as a concubine is pressuring a king to rule the world, a band of heroes is looking for the Sword of Light in order to stop the king. There's way more to it of course, but it's better to just find out for yourself.
Visually it's a huge pile of contradictions. To say the film is CG-heavy is an understatement and there's quite some crappy CG to get worked up about, but for every failed shot there's also one that works (and works well). Furthermore, the CG is functional. The days a film like this could be made with just practical effects are long gone and since just about everything and everyone is otherworldly, the CG is very much a necessity. On top of that, Hui's aesthetic sense is quite good, so even though the film lacks technical prowess, there's still a lot of visual splendor that adds to the fantastic nature of the film.
The soundtrack is exactly what you'd expect from a film like this. I don't know if they have some kind of big music reserve for fantasy blockbusters, but it all sounds pretty much identical. Chances are you won't even notice it that much, with the film moving forward at such a blistering pace. The music is just noise in the background that coincides with the visuals, it never really draws much attention to itself, but it would be nice to see some progress in future blockbusters. It remains a mostly untapped well of potential.
As for the cast, little can said except that most of them are underused. Many famous names were drummed up, but they're hidden under layers of makeup, clothing and CG. Jet Li, Louis Koo, Angelababy, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Wen, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jordan Chan, Andy On ... they're all present and very much in frame, but they're just stick puppets, shouting some epic lines or battling CG enemies. I guess they're needed to attract bigger crowds, but a little more quality exposure wouldn't have hurt the film.
Feng Shen Bang isn't what you'd call a film without defects. It's easy to completely demolish it in a review and just lump it in with the rest of the CG-heavy Chinese/Hong Kong blockbusters. But it also has a (huge) saving grace. The film's excruciating pacing combined with the wacky fantasy elements make it a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride. It reminded me of films like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Flying Dagger, Kung Fu Master and similar blends of manic action and fantasy. There's a surprise around every corner and even when something falls flat there's hardly enough time to get worked up about it.
This clearly isn't a film for everyone. Wacky fantasy isn't quite popular in the West and the lack of technical prowess is sure to put some people off (though the production design was lavish), but I ended up loving it despite entering the film with very low expectations. I think Hui learned a lot from the directors he worked for in the past and managed to properly update a somewhat lost interpretation of the fantasy genre. It's almost impossible to recommend as I usually tend to dislike films like these, but Koan Hui did a great job convincing me not all is bad in the world of Chinese blockbusters.