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Two years to turn an epic novel into a blockbuster movie

MOVE OVER, The Lord of the Rings. There’s a new three-part big-budget fantasy movie in town, and it is making a big splash.

Part one of the Fengshen Trilogy has a tight grip on the top of the box office chart in China, and is far ahead of Hollywood’s Barbie in popularity and earnings in the country.

Like The Lord of the Rings, the Chinese trilogy is based on a classic book—but a much more ancient one. It is based on Investiture of the Gods (《封神演義》) written by Xu Zhonglin (許仲琳) during the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368-1644).

And like the Hollywood movie series, the Chinese one depicts battles involving humans plus magical beings—and it even has Barrie Osborne, a producer of The Lord of the Rings, on board as a production consultant.

The first part of the trilogy is called Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (《封神》第一部:朝歌風雲), and is set during a turbulent period in Chinese history, 3,000 years ago: the decline of the Shang Dynasty (商朝) and the rise of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝).

Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms is set in a turbulent period in ancient China. Image: Wikimedia Commons


It took a long time to make. The first part of the trilogy was filmed and went through preliminary editing from January 2017 to February 2019.


Filmmakers in China have shot many film and television versions of the novel, most of which focused on the story of Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), a man who was apprentice to a deity, and who became involved in a mission to seek a new virtuous emperor.

“The Creation of the Gods trilogy is a heroic mythological epic of Chinese people.”

   Wuershan (烏爾善), director

However, Wuershan, the director of the new movie, turned it into a story of the development of a young man named Ji Fa (姬發), who became the first ruler of the Zhou empire after annihilating the Shang.

Movie director Wuershan decided to use young people, some of whom had no acting experience.

In 2015, Wuershan realised that it was necessary to choose new faces to make the movie totally original. But it was not just about choosing people with the right looks. He wanted to find actors whose inner selves were very close to the character traits of their roles, so that what the audience saw would be closer to reality.

For example, he felt that the young hostages from various vassal states, the soul of the whole film, should be wild, uninhibited and rebellious.

So he read the CVs of 15,000 people from Asia from 2017 to 2018, then interviewed 1,400 actors in person, and finally selected around 30 actors for a 24-week “training camp”. These actors mostly graduated without major acting qualifications or had no acting experience at all.


According to Wuershan, the actors should have the same skills as the ancient warriors, such as horse riding, archery and swordsmanship. So he set up a series of classes for the newcomers, including acting, kung fu, equestrian training, studies in ancient culture, traditional music and dance.

Stunt coordinator Sang Lin says actors have to look mascular.

During the 24-week training period, they took turns attending classes six to seven times a week to get closer to the film characters and learn more about life in China three thousand years ago.

Actors play ancient warriors in the movie. Image: Sohu

The young hostages (picture above) had to look right. According to Sang Lin, they had to lose visceral or deep abdominal fat and make the muscles clearly visible, to better portray muscular ancient warriors. Bill Lawrence, the equestrian instructor, told the press: “This is obviously going to be a challenge… Almost all the young guys did it themselves. They ran, they chased, they did a lot of things.”

Equestrian instructor Bill Lawrence says the young actors had to be capable of mastering horses.

Yu Shi (于適), the lead actor who played the role of Ji Fa, said that the scene that most impressed itself on his mind was his first shoot: He got up at 3 a.m., and went through four hours of make-up and dressing.

Actor Yu Shi insisted that he did the stunts on horseback himself. Image: Sohu

Then he found an Andalusian, a pure Spanish horse with a fiery temperament, waiting for him on the plateau in Xinjiang (新疆). He rejected advice to use a body double to ride the horse, and did it all himself. “I want to tell the director that his choice was right.”

Image: Sohu

According to the book Investiture of the Gods, Ji Fa was a young man who was good at horseback archery. Thus actor Yu Shi practiced riding and archery nearly every day in the training period, till he could control the horse without holding the halter.

Young actors are practising equestrian skills in training camp.

Narana Erdyneeva (娜然), the heroine of the film, is of mixed Russian-Mongolian descent. She was chosen by Wuershan in 2017, when she was 20 years old. In the six years leading up to the film’s release, she was not allowed to accept other acting roles, in order to build anticipation in the prospective audience.

Film poster featuring actress Narana Erdyneeva

Apart from the challenge of speaking Chinese, she had a lot to do. A particular challenge was to learn an extraordinary dance. It took in two years of practice, two days of rehearsal, and three days of filming, all for an element of the plot which takes no more than two minutes of screen time. And because her film character was a female fox spirit, she also observed real live foxes as much as possible during the 24 weeks of training.

Erdyneeva studied real foxes before playing a fox spirit in the movie. Image: Weibo/ Naran

Wuershan had an idea before shooting: “I think Ji Fa should be a young man with ambitions, dreams and perseverance. Daji (妲己), the heroine, should be pure, innocent, with aperplexed look on her face.”

This writer, after seeing the film, can confirm that the director found exactly the actors he was looking for.

And the film itself is a triumph, capturing the story of the development of the main characters, but also allowing viewers to see the extraordinary transformation of these actors’ inner selves.

Image at the top from movie, Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms

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