“Strange things keep happening these days,” muses Jiang Ziya (Bo Huang) halfway through this extravagant adaptation of Xu Zhonglin’s 16th-century myth-and-fantasy novel Investiture of the Gods. By this point, we’ve already seen a woman kill herself with a hatpin before being possessed by the spirit of a white fox; a gurgling, pistachio-coloured demon baby is found naked in the woods; and a conjuror who can make his head float free of his body when threatened with decapitation. Strange days indeed.
Ziya is one of three immortals sent to arrest the Great Curse which is threatening the future of the Shang dynasty. King Zhou (Kris Phillips) is besotted with the seductive but malevolent Su Daji (Naran), and is letting his kingdom descend into carnage. The only hope is the Fengshen Bang, an artefact which Ziya presents to him with the aim of investing a new batch of gods and removing the curse. Trouble is, the king is too deranged to use it wisely; learning that it runs on the energy of human souls, he calmly kills one of his own subjects to top up its power. Ziya snatches it back and hotfoots it into the wilderness, pursued by Prince Yin Jiao (Luke Chen), with gods and armies wreaking havoc all around them.
There’s no mistaking the ambition of director/co-writer Wuershan, who consulted with Peter Jackson before mounting this epic trilogy (parts II and III are coming soon); James Schamus, co-writer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is also credited as script consultant. This hasn’t prevented a lamentable excess of highly variable CGI as well as an undistinguished, would-be-stirring score ladled over virtually every scene. Luckily, there are enough idiosyncrasies to set it apart not only from US superhero cinema but from earlier adaptations of the same story (including a kitsch, cartoonish 2016 take, League of Gods, which starred Jet Li). The clear MVP is Ne Zha (Yafan Wu), an immortal child who sends fiery hoops spinning from her feet and exhibits the sort of dexterity with ribbons that would make her a hit around any maypole. Give that kid her own film.