The Monkey King returns! Again! This time it’s Aaron Kwok (who, confusingly enough, played the villain in the first film) picking up the staff of the titular hero for Cheang Pou-soi in place of martial arts star Donnie Yen but otherwise it’s business as usual for the mischievous Sun Wu Kong as he finally sets off on his journey to the west with the preliminaries already well sorted out. After 500 years trapped under a mountain, you’d think Wu Kong might have had some time to reflect on his behaviour but alas, there is still a very long journey ahead of him
So, 500 years after the end of the first film which saw Wu Kong imprisoned under Five Finger Mountain by the Goddess of Mercy, a young monk, Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng), gets himself into a sticky situation with a giant white tiger. Crawling into a crevice to hide, he finds himself face to face with Wu Kong who urges him to remove the magic tag which keeps him imprisoned. Xuanzang, little understanding what he’s letting himself in for, tugs on the tag. Wu Kong busts right out of his rocky cage and valiantly defeats the “evil demonic” tiger. Of course this is all in the grand plan envisioned by the Goddess (Kelly Chen) who has a mission for Wu Kong – escort Xuanzang to the West where he will find a set of scriptures which will unlock the truths of the world.
Monkey King 2 (西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精) focusses on Wu Kong’s battle with the White Lady (AKA White Boned Demon, played by Gong Li) who has been nursing a deep and incurable grudge for even longer than Wu Kong was trapped under that mountain. Like Wu Kong, the White Lady was rejected by her own kind, blamed for something that wasn’t her fault and cast out as a demon to be pecked to death by vultures all alone on a rocky outcrop. You can understand why she’d be upset, but rather than an end to her suffering the White Lady wants only immortality to indulge her grudge still further. Unfortunately for Wu Kong, she has taken a fancy to Xuanzang who she thinks would make quite the tasty snack and help her live forever as a demon rather than die as a hated human – one of those who has so badly wronged her.
Wu Kong serves the Goddess of Mercy but his primary motivation in accompanying Xuanzang is to get the metal tiara he’s wearing taken off so he can misbehave again. Nevertheless, through their journey Wu Kong develops deep respect for the goodhearted monk even if they do not always see eye to eye. Wu Kong whose fiery eyes see one kind truth can recognise a “demon” when he sees one and his hardheartedness means he has no trouble killing them on sight. Xuanzang by contrast sees with his heart and is constantly troubled by Wu Kong’s desire for violence even if it’s in his name. Wu Kong sees Xuanzang’s philosophy of love and forgiveness as naive and prefers to be proactive in the face of danger (his fiery eyes do, after all, ensure he is “right” when comes to identifying demons), but Xuanzang worries that Wu Kong’s unforgiving heart creates only more suffering in a world already overflowing with negative emotions and their unfortunate effects.
It is, however, the Monkey King who is on a journey here – away from selfish mischief and towards a more responsible use of his vast powers. Wu Kong is tempted by the White Lady, seductively played by Gong Li with a strangely alluring quality of malevolence. Yet for all that (when all that sometimes means eating innocent monks and being suspected of drinking the blood children), the White Lady is not completely unsympathetic and Xuanzang’s desire to save her admirable in his commitment to lifting those in pain out of their dark places even if it comes at great personal cost to himself.
Kwok makes for a less cartoonish Monkey King than Yen, embracing the impulsivity of the unpredictable Wu Kong but also capturing something of his complicated emotional landscape as he finds himself drawing closer to Xuanzang’s way of thinking only to rebel against himself. Learning from the mistakes of the first film, Cheang ends the headache inducing sugar rush in favour of a more normal Chinese fantasy aesthetic while also ensuring the (still frequent use of) CGI is of a much better (if imperfect) quality. All in all, the second venture of the Monkey King can be counted a success which is fortunate indeed because his journey is far from over.
Original trailer (English subtitles)