Koan Hui—former man Friday to Hong Kong maestro Tsui Hark and co-writer of Tsui’s Time And Tide and The Blade—makes his directing debut with League Of Gods, a 3-D extravaganza of canted angles and composited whooshes that luxuriates in an unreality unknown in Hollywood outside of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. It may not have an ending or even a climax. It may not have dialogue that rises above the level of “So, Nine-Tail Fox isn’t the biggest threat! Actually, it was the Black Dragon!” or characters who emote in anything other than evil, heroic, or lovelorn stares. But it has an old man who turns into a towel and many giant animals and a six-armed baby who flies around on a jet of his own highly pressurized piss, ripping crab-people in half with his seismic waves of flatulence. That counts for something.
Technically speaking, League Of Gods has a plot. It comes by way of Investiture Of The Gods, one of the classics of shenmo, the fantasy literature of imperial China, adapted into assorted movies about demons, gods, and monkey kings. As the film opens, formerly winged celestial being Lei (Jacky Heung) and his squad of more or less human super-warriors are about the face off with King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) so that they can rescue the chalk-white, acorn-headed children of the Invisible Tribe and take them to the protection of Father Commander. (Literal translations from Chinese can risk coming across as word salad, and that’s especially true with shenmo material.) Enter white-haired sorcerer Jiang Ziya (Jet Li), who arrives from the sky to bark the kind of frenetic exposition that is the movie’s default narrative mode.
League Of Gods is breathless to the point of being nonsensical, continually introducing new twists of information about characters who have barely been on screen. Somewhere in there is a quest for a golden sword, a reverse aging spell, a talking blade of grass with a humanoid eye, a mind-controlled wooden puppet named Blue Butterfly (Angelababy), an undersea kingdom, and a total waste of actor Louis Koo. It undoes itself over and over, as though struggling for the right choice of plot points. And yet, League Of Gods is also a dazzling example of the Hong Kong high artifice, in which the least important thing about a special effect is whether it looks convincing. Hui present a barrage of unreal textures, spaces, scales, and ranges of movement, combined with dissolves and cut-outs that look strange and arresting in 3-D.
In League Of Gods’ fantasy world, not even the beards look real; everything has visible seams. But it is often used to eye-popping effect, especially in the early sequence that finds Lei and his men sneaking into King Zhou’s fortress through an underground maze. The maze’s corners and archways provide borders for layers of composites, so that one shot swoops into another, as though the space were folding at odd angles. It is energized by its own blatant fakery, which results in an alternate reality of magic and constant transformation (wood into flesh, old into young, men into monsters, an olive pit into a boat, etc.) that feels more whole than a realistic approach could ever manage to be. No one is who they seem and someone is always turning into something or sprouting something or changing size. Hui’s style keeps pace.