Everybody knows the story of The Monkey King. His “journey to the west” has been reimagined by everyone from Tsai Ming-liang to Akira Toriyama but, all power to them, no one has yet had the courage to stuff Donnie Yen into a monkey suit to fully recreate the legend. Cheang Pou-Soi’s The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮) rectifies this problem but makes up for it by adding a lot more to the already overcrowded arena. Based on a few early chapters of the story, this first of three Monkey King films could best be classified as an origin story as it retells the events which eventually see Sun Wu-kong imprisoned underneath Five Finger Mountain for 500 years.
Basically, a long, long time ago there was a war between gods and demons after which a fragile truce was formed. The demons were defeated and exiled from Heaven which is repaired thanks to the sacrifice of Princess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) who transforms herself into crystal tears, one of which births a strange divine creature who has a long and arduous journey ahead of him. Emerging from his crystal egg, The Monkey King (Donnie Yen) returns to lead his people before being discovered by a monk who seeks to train him and make sure he remains on the path of the light. Now renamed Sun Wu-kong, The Monkey King finds himself summoned to the heavenly court where he causes a bunch of trouble and becomes swept up in the Demon King’s ongoing plot for revenge.
A super high budget production, The Monkey King is a live action/animation hybrid even beyond that of any recent Chinese fantasy blockbuster. Utilising green screen for the majority of backgrounds, Cheang also adds in a menagerie of strange creatures including supernatural dragons before the final fight develops into a complete CGI fest as a giant cow and super powered monkey duke it out for the rights to define their world. Rendered in 3D the battles are a whirl of brightly coloured mythic action but it’s often a confection too sweet to be to be truly satisfying, backed up only by a very variable quality of animation.
The film’s true standout element is in the surprisingly nuanced performance of Yen who completely becomes The Monkey King right down to his animalistic gestures. This being a family film he’s much more of a recalcitrant fun lover than someone who likes to cause trouble, but nevertheless trouble is usually what you get if The Monkey King pays you a visit. He is, however, hampered by the slightly incongruous obviousness of his monkey suit given the more abstract designs afforded to other characters. Despite the inherent strangeness of his appearance, Yen is afforded the opportunity to do some quality acting alongside killer fight sequences even if he’s often let down by the lacklustre script and production design.
The origin story of The Monkey King is a necessarily long and complicated one but even so, Cheang seems to have decided that coherence is unnecessary when his audience knows the story so well already. Consequently, the potential romance between Son Wu-kong and the fox spirit Ru-xue is inadequately backed up given its importance to the central narrative whereas other characters appear for such little screen time that they almost seem like excuses to add yet another famous name to the poster. Meandering from one episode to another, the film makes little attempt to maintain engagement between its large scale set pieces, becoming over reliant on its parade of well known personages.
Despite the gravitas offered by Chow Yun-fat and the intense villainy of Aaron Kwok’s poisonous antagonist, The Monkey King remains a fairly silly exercise, a visual sugar rush which seems primed to put viewers off their tea whilst leaving them with a slight headache to boot. Playing best to small children and family audiences, The Monkey King’s only selling point is in the surprising (and almost unrecognisable) performance of Yen as its titular hero whose good hearted japes are sure to be appreciated by the young of heart everywhere. The Monkey King will return, but hopefully with a little more maturity as his quest nears its iconic destination, or at least with a little more finesse.
Original trailer (English subtitles)