Movie Review: Ne Zha (2019)
I keep wondering when a Chinese movie will break out and do well in other markets. They’re killing it in China, with six homegrown movies in the last four years that have grossed north of half a billion dollars; but these things don’t travel well.
|YEAR||MOVIE||CHINESE BO||FOREIGN BO|
|2017||Wolf Warrior 2||$854||$15|
|2019||The Wandering Earth||$691||$9|
|2018||Operation Red Sea||$576||$4|
|2018||Detective Chinatown 2||$541||$3|
Why does the world come to Hollywood movies and not Chinese movies? Because they’re in English, which much of the world speaks? Because they offer a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that feels universal? Because the U.S. is a microcosm of the world and that’s reflected in our movies, while China isn’t, and that’s reflected in theirs?
Last February, I saw “The Wandering Earth,” China’s entry into the big-budget sci-fi blockbuster realm, and was thinking, “They still haven’t nailed special effects, but they’re closer. But oy, the story.” I mean, how many people besides scientists have to be insulted in this thing? From my review:
There’s a million-to-one shot to save the Earth and our Chinese heroes are in favor of rolling those dice. Every other country? They just want to return to their underground homes to spend their last precious hours wallowing in grief. The Brits wallow in drink while the Japanese contemplate hara-kiri. As for the U.S.? We don’t seem to exist. We’ve been expunged.
With “Ne Zha,” an animated movie based on a classic Chinese character, they’ve nailed the special-effects part. I was thinking, “Wow, the animation looks great. As good anything Pixar or DreamWorks does.”
But oy, the story.
Nurture over nature
I lived in Taiwan for two years but I still can’t begin to wrap my head around Chinese mythology. This one basically begins in the clouds, where a pig man and a jaguar man battle against ... I don’t even remember. But the battle results in two pearls—a spirit and a demon—being loosed upon the earth. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I can’t, but basically the underwater dragons convince jaguar-man to get pig-man drunk so they can get steal the spirit pearl, and either through happenstance or by design, the demon pearl winds up in Ne Zha, the newborn of Li Jing and Madam Yin. The distraught parents are informed that this means he’ll only live to his third birthday.
It also means he’s a demon, but the parents do what they can to raise him right anyway. In the village, though, he’s feared. That makes sense—he has a demon’s power and sensibility—but they assume the worst, too, blaming him for things he doesn’t do. He’s a misunderstood demon.
There’s a good scene where village boys conspire against him. One suggests setting up a Rube Goldbergesque series of traps, involving a rotten wood bridge, a beehive, etc., where the only avenue of escapes leads to another trap, which leads to another trap, and so on, until the hapless Ne Zha is forced to flop into a rancid mudpit. The boys are totally game for this and decide the only improvement is to add burrs and their own pee into the mudpit. At which point the planner reveals himself to be Ne Zha and we see the village boys go through the Rube Goldberg machine and wind up in the nasty mudpit of their own making.
That’s the sorta demon part. The misunderstood part is when he’s accused of kidnapping a little girl to eat her. That was actually a different demon, a water demon, whom Ne Zha battles in the village and on the beach, where he’s joined by the tall, graceful, horned Ao Bing. The two play hacky-sack on the beach as well. Ao Bing is Ne Zha’s first friend.
He’s also the son of the Dragon King, and infused with the power of the stolen spirit pearl. It’s his father’s wish for him to use his powers to raise the dragons from their underwater prison. To do so would mean the end of the village. Or something.
All of this comes to a head on Ne Zha’s third birthday, when Li Jing tries to sacrifice himself for his son. Ne Zha refuses to let him, and in accepting his destiny (early death) becomes more than his destiny (a demon). He becomes the hero no one thought he would be.
A bowlful of snot
That’s the part of the movie that could travel well: nurture over nature; controlling your own destiny. Everyone in the world digs that. But to get there you have to go through a dizzying array of Chinese folks legends, none of which are really explained for the neophyte or 外国人。
My wife had a problem, too, with how one-note it all is: relentlessly loud with few pauses. I was more turned off by the frequent scatological humor—although the Chinese kids who sat in front of us for a Sunday matinee at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle certainly enjoyed the fart jokes. That was cute—the kids more than the fart jokes. I missed how they took the scene where Ne Zha is forced to swallow a bowlful of the water demon’s snot; I was too busy shielding my eyes.
There’s also a running gag with a brawny villager who has a fearful girlish cry. It’s funny the first time; by the 10th, it feels a lot more homophobic.
But they’re closer.