“New Gods: Yang Jian” is the second movie in an expensive-looking series that began in 2021 with the uneven but relatively straightforward “New Gods: Nezha Reborn.” These two “New Gods” movies are not narratively related in any way you need to worry about if you’re only curious to see what a polished Chinese mythological fantasy might look like. And while the first hour of “New Gods: Yang Jian” is about as attractive as it is surreal, the back half only works if you care about the destinies of its undistinguished protagonists.
Which isn’t to say that the first half of “New Gods: Yang Jian” is completely original, nor does it really need to be. Animation fans will note a few similarities between the happy-go-lucky bounty hunter Erlang (Wang Kai) and the cool, but melancholy bounty hunter Spike Spiegel, from the oft-imitated Japanese sci-fi/noir anime “Cowboy Bebop.” Like Spike, Erlang seems to live a carefree existence, drifting from job to job and literally floating above the clouds in a steampunk-style airship.
Erlang and his companions have also just run out of Cosmic Gas, so they must pursue a bounty in order to stay airborne. Their target is Erlang’s estranged nephew Chenxiang (Li Lanling), who’s now trying to find the Lamp of Universal Contentment, a powerful plot device that will free Yang Chan (Risa Mei), Chenxiang’s mother and Erlang’s sister, from a rather extreme form of imprisonment. We’re told that, 12 years ago, Erlang buried Yang Chan under a mountain to punish her for having an affair with a mortal man.
Chenxiang’s whatsit bridges the sizable gap between the movie’s well-paced and easy-to-follow front half and its narratively convoluted and dramatically inert back half. And as you might imagine, the connection between these two parts is rather flimsy, possibly because the movie’s first half is a perfect example of style over substance.
At first, the loose, almost-besides-the-point plot of “New Gods: Yang Jian” feels like an excuse for director Zhao Ji and the creative team at Light Chaser Animation studio to show off various character designs, action figure-ready poses, and matte-painting perfect locations. Now we’re in Square Pot Casino, with its floating hologram screens and gold-colored lighting and fixtures. Now we’re at Smugglers’ Point, populated by dock-side cut-throats and other shifty stock characters. It’s a pleasure to watch Erlang fly through these early scenes.