This summer, the most anticipated film is undoubtedly "Creation of The Gods Ⅰ: Kingdom of Storms". Originally scheduled for release in the summer of 2020, this mythological blockbuster will finally meet audiences on July 20th. Although some industry insiders are cautiously optimistic about its box office performance, it cannot be denied that it has already raised audience expectations to their fullest. With the announcement of this large-scale investment movie's release date, another phenomenon is emerging: a resurgence of ancient costume films. Of course, "Creation of The Gods" is not alone in this trend.
During the Shanghai International Film Festival, Beijing Baination released their film lineup which includes three costume films: Cao Dun's directed and Ma Boyong's scripted "Heroes of Dunhuang", Wu Youyin's self-written and directed "Sha Hai Zhi Men (沙海之门)," and “Su Wu”. Also during the same festival was when Bona Film Group Co announced twenty new films with historical themes including costume dramas such as “Fighting for Love”, “The Story of the Stone” & “The Legend”.
If we include movies like last month’s poster-released "The Legend of the Condor Heroes: The Great Hero" and other films that have been rumored since last year such as"Zheng He Xia Xi Yang: Cang Hai You Ming (郑和下西洋1：沧海幽冥)", "Da Han Shuang Xiong (大汉双雄)", "Jin Ping Zhi Qian (金瓶掣签)", "War 1840 (战争1840)", and "The Belief (澎湖海战)", more than ten ancient costume films have pending release over these past two years.
Why have Chinese ancient costume blockbusters suddenly made a comeback? Why are these types becoming popular again? In addition to being influenced by successful works like "Full River Red", there are deeper aesthetic values and cultural implications behind this trend.
The three directions of ancient costume films
Rather than saying that Chinese ancient costume blockbusters have made a comeback, it would be more accurate to say that they are undergoing innovation. Compared to the previous decade, the costume films of the third decade of this new century feature richer subject matter and more integrated styles. Generally speaking, emerging ancient costume films can be roughly divided into three directions: visual wonders, great achievements and celebrity biographies.
Let's first talk about visual wonders. Pursuing visual wonder has always been the basic appeal of ancient costume films. Prior to sci-fi, fantasy and mythological films in China’s film industry, ancient costume martial arts movies had produced some of the most dazzling images.
The "Creation of The Gods" series is a typical example of visual wonder. From its trailer released on its official account we can see that there are many elements packed into just two minutes: Nezha with three heads and six arms; Lei Zhenzi with wings born from his sides; Su Daji who seduces people using her fox spirit powers; ice and snow scenes as well as waterfalls and large explosions.
Another director who takes a unique approach in terms of imagery is Cao Dun, who directed "Heroes of Dunhuang". Those familiar with Cao know he comes from photography background which gives him unique insights when it comes to imagery style. His former historical film works such as "Tribes and Empires-Storm of Prophecy" and “The Longest Day In Chang'an” are all known for their exquisite visuals effects, stylistic magnificence and rich cultural connotations. This movie marks another collaboration between Cao Dun and Ma Boyong after “The Longest Day In Chang'an”. It tells the story of a group of Dunhuang Guiyi army during Tang Dynasty.
It is rumored that "Zheng He Xia Xi Yang: Cang Hai You Ming: The Deep Sea" will start filming in August this year. The story tells about Zheng He, a eunuch who led his first expedition to the western seas in the second year of Yongle Emperor's reign. A film blogger revealed that director Wuershan wanted to make it into a Chinese version of "Pirates of the Caribbean". When we mention Wuershan, maritime and "Pirates of Caribbean", concepts like these solidify visual wonders.
On Bona’s list, “The Legend”, another collaboration between Jackie Chan and Stanley Tong stands out. After watching its trailer, people may feel some familiarity with it as if it is a sequel to "The Myth". Similarly, both are archaeological adventures where young generals meet exotic women while surrounded by winding mountains and cold tombs.
"Sha Hai Zhi Men" also focuses on Dunhuang. This film adapts from Wu Youyin's novel, "Sha Hai Wu Men (沙海无门)", which he wrote and directed himself. During an unprecedented sandstorm, Zhang San meets Li Si - an enemy aristocrat who appears benevolent but has sinister motives, they must escape together through eight hundred miles of desert wasteland with only one white horse and one water pouch. Based on its plot summary alone , this movie seems like an enhanced visual effects version of "Little Big Soldier".
The protagonist of "The Belief" is Shi Lang. Regardless of one's familiarity with Qing Dynasty history, upon hearing the name Shi Lang, most people would associate with: Taiwan's recapture during the Qing Dynasty. The film tells the story of Kangxi Emperor sending Admiral Shi Lang to launch a surprise attack on Zheng Jun in Penghu in order to prevent their independence attempts and ultimately reclaiming Taiwan. Its war scenes are not outdated, feature both thousands of sails competing for islands and ten thousand cannons firing together, which resonates well with audiences and offers some visual spectacle.
"Jin Ping Zhi Qian" relates to national integration and unity among ethnic groups. In the summer of 1791, Gurkha invaded Tibet, and Qianlong dispatched seven expeditions that emerged victorious each time against them. To conform to local customs and calm people’s minds, Qianlong ordered use "Golden Urn" as an identification method for selecting Tibetan reincarnations.
The protagonist of "War 1840" is Lin Zexu, who led China’s anti-opium campaign during the First Opium War, and depicts his patriotic spirit.
Biopics have a wider range than historical figures alone; protagonists can also be characters from familiar novels or other sources. One representative work featuring real-life figures includes "Su Wu"; another is "Chang An San Wan Li". Those based on fictional characters include"The Legend of the Condor Heroes: The Great Hero", "Fighting for Love", and "The Story of the Stone".
"Chang An San Wan Li", although an animated film, is quite different in texture and style from the popular animated films of the past five years. Its protagonists are Li Bai and Gao Shi, will be released on July 8th, making it the earliest among all costume epics films to meet audiences.
"The Legend of the Condor Heroes: The Great Hero," directed by Xu Ke with Xiao Zhan and Zhuang Dafei as lead actors. The Mongol army under Genghis Khan destroyed Jin Dynasty, then marched southward to wipe out Song Dynasty. Martial arts masters from various sects were embroiled in intense struggles; a hero among heroes like Guo Jing rallied forces from Central Plains' martial arts circle to defend Xiangyang for their countrymen.
Of all these films, "The Story of the Stone" is perhaps the most unique one. Objectively speaking, it does not belong to the costume epic genre. However, as director Hu Mei's ten-year labor of love project, this movie may offer audiences a different experience.
The new era of Chinese ancient costume blockbuster
What is an Chinese ancient costume blockbuster? This concept may be more familiar to everyone over a decade ago, when discussions about it were prevalent around 2010. Firstly, the story must be set in ancient times. Whether based on historical backgrounds or fictional eras, and whether martial arts action or fantasy Xuanhuan tales, they all have to take place "a long time ago." Secondly, investment must be substantial.
From the rise of "Hero" in 2002 to the plain ending of "The Assassins" in 2012, Chinese ancient costume blockbusters went through their first decade. It was a rich, colorful yet crude and boorish period. Why did Chinese ancient costume blockbuster emerge? The most fundamental reason was commercial demand. For a long time, costumes films had been among China's most eye-catching genres for Chinese audiences; if we narrow down even further then it would cater to overseas markets' demand for Chinese cultural exports.
For worldwide audience viewership, Chinese costumed film provided them with an exotic spectacle that often failed for them to fully comprehend its underlying meanings. The aesthetic focus has shifted during this period towards mass appeal than substance. This created only few followers who successfully rode on this trend. After remaining silent for some time thereafter emerged “Monster Hunt,” representing the highest level of commercial success for Chinese costume films.
Before the release of "Full River Red," only two costume epics, "Monster Hunt" and "Monster Hunt 2," had made it into China's top 30 box office rankings. There were many factors contributing to the success of "Monster Hunt": pre-promotion, star power, and timing. However, what was more important was its completion of a transition from Chinese costume films aimed at foreign audiences to Hollywood-style fantasy films targeting domestic Chinese viewership. The shift from "Hero" to "Monster Hunt" also represented a move from spectacle to rationality.
Unfortunately, in the second decade, only two Chinese ancient costume blockbusters - both being “Monster Hunt” movies- remained memorable for audiences. In this most prosperous decade for China’s film industry, why did only “Monster Hunt” stand out as representative of authentic Chinese style? The fundamental reason is that it took a Westernized path towards recreating Chinese fantasies.
"Full River Red" and other upcoming costume blockbuster represent the new era of such films. How to revive costume films? On one hand，audiences are increasingly expecting films like “Full River Red” which provide emotional values despite their flaws: at least offering simplistic materialist values where good deeds yield rewards through sacrifice even with loss life.
On another hand, technological advancements have enabled more types of movies to be presented before larger audiences today compared to ten years ago: Films like "Creation of The Gods" would not have been imaginable then but now sci-fi blockbusters such as “The Wandering Earth" franchise provides room for them too.
How did Chinese ancient costume blockbusters bring forth new ideas?
Firstly, they must be emotionally authentic. This means that the emotional value of a film is now a basic pursuit for the general public in today's era, and it requires authenticity beyond historical or filmtic truth. The box office success of "Full River Red" and the online popularity of "The Knockout" demonstrate this trend.
Secondly, respect for Chinese history is essential while incorporating modern elements into them. It is important to integrate artistic creativity with traditional Chinese values and aesthetics with contemporary aesthetic pursuits. "Creation of The Gods" provides an interesting example: from the trailer, we see Jiang Ziya carrying the Feng Shen Bang down from Mount Kunlun to visit King Zhou in Chao Ge City. From destroying the Shang dynasty (downhill) to finding co-rulership across all lands shows already a present-day consciousness and vision.
There are claims that Wuershan’s “Creation of The Gods” depicts how names written on the list would turn mere mortals into gods with supernatural powers beyond imagination. Whoever holds onto this list would possess an army of immortal beings at their disposal. If these rumors prove true then it should make for an exciting movie experience indeed.
The creation principles behind these films should involve extracting and showcasing authentic cultural essence from an excellent traditional culture that has contemporary value as well as global significance without being outdated or purely nostalgic.
This revival of costume epics also reflects current zeitgeist trends along with audience demands, where there is growing demand for inheriting excellent traditional culture through innovation in recent years. And historical dramas and ancient costume blockbusters have become genres most able to exhibit China's 5000-year-old civilization's long-standing tradition and profoundness.