Bitter Money (苦钱, Wang Bing, 2016)

Bitter money poster“Bitter Money” (苦钱, Kǔ Qián), according to director Wang Bing, is a phrase on the rise. It may be that money is rarely sweet, but this kind is particularly hard to swallow. Not only is the youth of China thrown out of its villages towards the inferno of city industry, living alone and away from home, but finds nothing more than exploitation, drudgery and false promise when it gets there. Wang’s trademark immersive detachment captures the frustrating inertia of the young men and women of the modern China who find themselves very definitely at the bottom of a heap and consistently betrayed by a failed ideology.

Wang opens in the country with a trio of hopeful youngsters about to leave everything behind for the bright promise of a better life for themselves and their families bought with city money. They board a bus, and then a train, and then interminable hours later arrive in Huzhou, the centre of the modern garment trade. The girls find work in a small workshop which, all things considered, might not seem so bad save that it provides only extremely low pay and offers no guarantees.

Shifting away from the recent arrivals, Wang’s camera locks onto the melancholy figure of 25-year-old Ling Ling who wants to borrow it as ally in confronting her coldhearted husband who threw her out after she complained about his beatings and is now so resentful that she’s stayed away too long that he refuses to talk to her. Ling Ling’s attitude to her unhappy marriage speaks volumes about the oppressive, patriarchal world of Huzhou where physical strength and dexterity are the only real currencies.

Lamenting her fate to coworker, Ling Ling affirms that domestic violence is just a part of life and believes that women have a duty to “submit” to their husbands’ rages – after all, “no woman can beat a man”. Her husband, Erzi, is proud and insecure. He views his wife’s behaviour as a slight against him and is resolved to be rid of her, loudly threatening her life in front of half the neighbourhood guys each of whom gets up and abandons their mahjong game after sensing that something is about to kick off. Despite the disdain with which the other men treat his overt violence towards his wife, Erzi is convinced his “manly” behaviour is impressive and thinks nothing of grabbing his wife by the throat in full view of Wang’s camera which remains a purely passive presence despite this ongoing threat.

Ling Ling, however, has few real choices left to her. She can’t survive alone in this environment and has nowhere else to go. In a pattern repeated across the nation, Ling Ling’s son is being raised in the country while she and her husband try to make a go of things in the city. Her major argument with Erzi is that he kicked her out with no money and won’t even give her anything for their son. Yet a later scene shows them together again, seemingly “happier” even whilst they to continue to bicker about money if in a less obviously destructive way.

Most of the other workers are not quite as trapped as Ling Ling, but are caught by a feeling of threat and desperation which encourages them to push themselves beyond the limits of human endurance while their bosses reap the profits. One minute the garment workshop is in the hole because they backed a product which isn’t selling, and the next it’s doing so well that the “slow” workers are being laid off in favour of the more “efficient”. It goes without saying that work in these small workshops is almost entirely unregulated with very few enforceable labour rights which means the boss is free to hire and fire as he sees fit. Some consider “investing” in pyramid schemes despite an awareness of their risks in the belief that they could beat the system if they get out fast enough while others resolve to give up and go home to the comparative comforts of the country.

One worker retreats into drink, only for his boss to tell him he’s holding back his wages for his own good which seems like a dubious claim at best. The workers regard the “big factories” with fear and awe, enemies of their current establishments but perhaps also offering better opportunities if also requiring a further fall into the industrial inferno. With little else on offer, “bitter money” is all there seems to be but its rewards are scant and its toll heavy. The teenage girl we first meet full of excitement and enthusiasm is eventually worn down, realising she’s worked all these months and earned barely anything. Wang’s detachment mirrors that of his protagonists who find themselves at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent social system the ongoing violence of which it proves almost impossible to escape.


Golden Orchestra! (オケ老人!, Toru Hosokawa, 2016)

ƒIƒP˜Vl_ƒeƒBƒU[ƒ`ƒ‰ƒV•1C³_ƒAƒEƒg‚È‚µIt might never be too late to follow your dreams, but if following your dreams makes you very unhappy perhaps you need to spend some more time figuring out what they are. Golden Orchestra (オケ老人!,  Oke Rojin!) is one in a long line of Japanese fish out of water / underdog comedies, but addresses some very contemporary concerns from the ageing society to a perceived loss of community in the face of soulless commercialism. Our stuck-up school teacher is about to learn a few lessons, chief among them being that it’s much better just having fun with nice people than being caught up in a vicious and unwinnable game of elitism with a bunch of permanently scowling snobs.

20-something school teacher Chizuru (Anne Watanabe) harbours a longstanding dream of playing in an orchestra but gave up the violin when she got a job. A visit to a classical music concert in provincial Umegaoka reignites her musical passion and she quickly becomes determined to dust off her instrument and ask for an audition. However, as she was so excited she can’t quite remember the orchestra’s name and, assuming there couldn’t be two in this tiny town, signs up for the wrong one. Only realising her mistake when a bunch of old people turn up instead of the well turned out collection of musicians she was expecting, Chizuru tries to back out but the old people are so happy to have her that she can’t quite work up the courage to tell them no.

As it happens there’s a People’s Front of Judea situation going on between Ume-sym and Ume-phil. The conductor of Ume-sym, Nonomura (Takashi Sasano), is also the owner of a family-run electronics shop – a relic of a bygone era made all the more lonely by the flashy electronics superstore that’s been set up right next door. The owner of the electronics superstore, Osawa (Ken Mitsuishi), used to be a member of Ume-sym but stormed out to form his own orchestra – Ume-phil, so he’s betrayed Nonomura twice over and there’s bad blood between them which isn’t helped by Osawa’s constant overtures to Nonomura’s son about buying up the shop in order to close it down.

Chizuru is, it has to be said, a somewhat clueless woman approaching middle age who is also a bit of a snob. She’s harboured musical dreams ever since she can remember, giving them up because, after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to accept a conventional, ordered life. If playing music was all she wanted to do, there was nothing stopping her doing it at home in her free time, but Chizuru wants to be among the best. She looks down on the old people in the orchestra – firstly because they’re “old” and therefore “bothersome” (as she notes turning off a tap left running by an absent-minded older lady), and then because they’re just not any good, and finally because their aim isn’t really becoming a successful orchestra so much as it is participating in a community activity. The old ladies have brought snacks which must be indulged and appreciated, while the old men all enjoy the after practice drinking sessions perhaps more than they do the music.

Turning her back on this anarchic friendliness, Chizuru practices night and day to get into Ume-phil, but Ume-phil isn’t about love of music either, it’s just about being superior and giving yourself an excuse to look down on people. Chizuru finds out for herself how stressful and unpleasant it can be as a “member” of just such a community when they grudgingly grant her a spot. Ume-phil runs on a survival of the fittest policy – not everyone gets to play, only whoever is deemed most worthy. When push comes to shove, Osawa buys himself success by hiring a world-famous French conductor for the biggest concert of the year. Only the professional conductor is true music lover and quickly quits Osawa’s ersatz orchestra, charmed by the down-home wisdom of Mr. Nonomura who manages to fix his treasured cassette player when Osawa advised him to throw it out and buy something more up-to-date. Some people just can’t see what’s really important.

As expected, Chizuru finally realises that it’s just much nicer (not to mention less stressful) having fun making music with the old people rather than putting up with the soulless rigour of the Osawa brigade for whom nothing will ever be good enough. In the end Ume-sym decides to practice Dvorak’s Largo which is, as anyone who’s seen a Japanese film knows, an instantly warm and nostalgic tune familiar as the inspiration for (in some cities at least) Japan’s five ‘o clock chimes (British viewers may well experience the same surge of wistful melancholy thanks to the same tune’s iconic use in a series of Hovis adverts from the ‘70s and ‘80s). It’s an apt choice for a film which harks back to a simpler time when people took care of each other and rejoiced in ordinary pleasures like home-made pickles and fixing things that were broken rather than throwing them out to buy new ones. In true community spirit, it’s not so much that one side wins and another loses, so much as that the joy of sharing a dream with others becomes infectious, producing a rapprochement between the old and the new which allows a peaceful coexistence of the two. Cosy cinema at its finest, Golden Orchestra may not offer anything new to a well-worn formula but in many ways that is the point and its harmonious charms prove hard to resist.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The original Hovis ad from 1973 (which was directed by Ridley Scott)

A Slice Room (사람이 산다, Song Yun-hyeok, 2016)

slice room still 1It’s easy to view a city like Seoul as a shining example of economic prosperity in which even ordinary people enjoy a high standard of living and perhaps no longer need to worry about extreme poverty or hunger. Of course, this is not the case and despite the aspirational image the city likes to project for itself, a long and complex history of political instability, authoritarian government, and the legacy of the 1997 Asian financial crisis have ensured the survival of an oppressed underclass unable to escape the roots of their poverty due to entrenched social issues which will not allow them to free themselves from the Slice Room existence.

Director Song Yun-hyeok first learned of the “jjok bang” or “Slice Room” phenomenon while working with the homeless and himself lived in one of the tiny tenement rooms for a year in order to make the documentary. He follows three groups of impoverished people who have each found themselves trapped in the slums for different reasons. 27-year-old Il-so was born in the jjok bang and has lived in the community all his life. He lives with his girlfriend, Sun-hee, who uses a wheelchair and finds it difficult to get around the makeshift world of the jjok bang without him. Meanwhile, 60-something Nam-sung lost his job after the Asian financial crisis and has been drifting aimlessly ever since as has Chun-hyun whose mental health issues prevent him from gaining secure employment.

Bad luck can happen to anybody, but the forces which conspire to keep someone in the jjok bang are no accident only a result of deliberate governmental failures. The reason many are unable to get off benefits and return to mainstream society is down to a law which mandates familial support – i.e. if a son gets a job his father loses his benefits even if the prospective job is not enough to support them both or if there are other dependents involved. Thus Nam-sung, by most standards an old man, finds himself in the humiliating position of having to reconnect with his estranged parents in order to get them to sign a consent form so that he can have access to government subsidy and take up a job his social worker has found for him. The family, whom he has not seen for 40 years, are also aware of the support legislation and are worried they will at some point be required to support Nam-sung and so they disown him and refuse to sign. Nam-sung is back at square one with no other options because of the say so of his father even though he is old enough to be a grandfather himself.

Meanwhile, Il-so and Sun-hee want to get married and start a family, but once they become a couple they will also receive a substantial benefits cut and seeing as they are also unable to work because of health issues and the support law, they have no real possibility of being able to support themselves without government help. Nevertheless they decide to try and fulfil their dream of building a family only to face a further dilemma when Sun-hee becomes pregnant.

Medical costs are another constant worry. Il-so, who has spent his entire life in the jjok bang, has long standing health issues from high blood pressure and diabetes to recurrent TB. Disease is rife in the jjok bang and mysterious deaths not uncommon, but the secondary problems are spiritual malaise and creeping depression as the hopelessness of the jjok bang world begins to sap the strength of those who live there, convincing them there is no way out of this world of crushing of poverty. For those like Chun-hyun the situation is even more precarious as they attempt to manage their conditions while living in the impossible jjok bang society, forced into exploitative, low paid and illegal labour simply to get by all while worrying about being caught out, losing their benefits and their homes.

Nam-sung, having found temporary relief outside of the city, is forced to return to the jjok bang but has resigned himself to wanting nothing more than to be allowed to live there until he dies. The jjok bang, however, has been scheduled for demolition which might be a good thing in many ways save that no provision has been made for where these people are supposed to go – rents everywhere else are simply too high and many will have no other option than being forced back onto the streets. With no address they’ll have no access to welfare or possibility of finding work and so the whole vicious cycle starts over again. Make no mistake, these problems are not exclusive to Korea but are the result of an uncaring and authoritarian government which continues to abnegate its responsibilities towards its most vulnerable citizens while social stigma and a belief that the poor have only themselves to blame continues to perpetuate a myth of othering which thinks the problem will eventually solve itself in the cruellest of ways. Director Song Yun-hyeok explores the lives of the jjok bang residents with empathy and understanding, demonstrating the extent to which they are rendered powerless by a needlessly arcane social welfare system in the hope that something might finally change.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

Heaven is Still Far Away (天国はまだ遠い, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2016)

Heaven is still far away still 1Ryusuke Hamaguchi returns to the theme of objects in motion with his haunting short Heaven is Still Far Away (天国はまだ遠い, Tengoku wa Mada Toi). When one thing ends, conventional wisdom insists that something else must begin but real life shows us that that isn’t always the case. For three people attempting to deal with the legacy of an unsolved serial murder case, forward motion has been impeded, or perhaps refracted, and not least for the victim herself who remains a still point in an otherwise turning world.

Mitsuki (Anne Ogawa) tells us that her mother explained to her when she was a child that when you die you go to “heaven”, which is a place beyond the clouds. For Mitsuki, however, heaven still seems so very far off – after all, there are still so many things to experience here on Earth. At present, Mitsuki lives with Yuzo (Nao Okabe) – a strange and blunt young man who has the rather skeevy job of adding mosaics to pornographic videos. One day Yuzo gets a phone call from another young woman, Satsuki (Hyunri), who wants to interview him for a documentary she is making as a graduation project which will focus on her older sister who was murdered 17 years previously. Yuzo didn’t really know Satsuki’s sister but something he did after she died has captured her imagination and Satsuki would like to explore why he did it.

What ensues is a series of odd, concentric conversations as Satsuki tries to articulate her artistic intentions to the grumpy Yuzo who is either a quite a tactless person or one who likes to appear so for various unexplained reasons. Satsuki’s main hope, it seems, is a kind of exercise in emotional excavation. Confused by the way some things can carry on when others end, she wants to wants to mark out the shape her sister cut into the world by finding out how her presence and absence has affected the lives of those around her. For reasons which aren’t immediately clear, she wants to start with Yuzo because, through an accident of fate, he finds himself at the exact intersection of both of these points.

Satsuki asks if Yuzo bears a grudge towards her seeing as his life too has been derailed thanks to his connection with her sister’s life and death. Yuzo replies that he doesn’t – he bears the responsibility for the way his life has turned out, even if it might have been impacted by external events. Satsuki wrestles with trajectories, accepting that her family may have fallen apart on its own but always wondering what might have happened if she had died in her sister’s place, why her sister had to die rather than someone else’s, why parts of her life have also stopped in the wake of her sister’s absence. If Satsuki has “lost” something, did Yuzo “gain” it or did he “lose” too in gaining an additional burden? The only truth is that Mitsuki has become a point of refraction in each of their lives, looking on from the periphery unseen but making her presence felt even in her absence.

Hamaguchi once again makes the everyday seem strange as the past continues to haunt our protagonists, in ways both literal and metaphorical. An eery sense of sadness pervades, yet endings are refused in favour of dualistic circularity. Objects in motion must remain in motion, even if they appear to have stalled. One life refracts another, and absence defines presence. Heaven may still be far away, but it’s there all the same and its presence is felt, even if unseen.


Available to stream worldwide via Le CiNéMa Club until 24th May.

The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Arata Oshima, 2016)

169827_01Sion Sono has acquired something of a reputation for controversy. His frequent denouncements of his nation’s cinema in which he sets himself up as a kind of “anti-Ozu” perhaps place him in line with the great 1960s iconoclast Nagisa Oshima who also proclaimed that his distaste for Japanese cinema extended to “absolutely all of it”. Funnily enough, The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Sono Sion to Iu Ikimono) – a documentary exploring the director’s work, is helmed by Oshima’s son, Arata, though he is at pains to show a different side to the artist known as Sion Sono, keying in to the various aways his art reflects his life and vice versa.

Shot during 2015, the documentary follows the twin processes of the production of The Whispering Star (one of five films Sono would release that year), and a landmark art exhibition which led straight back to the director’s origins as an avant-garde street protestor with the performance art collective “Tokyo Gagaga”. These joint concerns perhaps highlight a minor conflict in Sono’s working life as he reveals during a casual conversation in referencing the “indecent” work that had been mostly occupying his time over the previous year. Expressing both fear and gratitude for finally gaining the opportunity to work a more personal project (the script for The Whispering Star had been written almost 20 years previously), Sono jokes that he’ll finally be getting “clean” only to immediately relapse by making The Virgin Psychics – the big screen adaptation of a sci-fi TV series he had also directed which largely consisted of lewd juvenile humour.

To rewind slightly, Sion Sono had been making films for almost 20 years before getting mainstream festival attention in the early 2000s with Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table. His profile was further enhanced by the international success of serial killer thriller Cold Fish and the Venice recognition of Himizu even if it’s the 4-hour epic and sleeper cult hit Love Exposure which has become synonymous with his name for many Western viewers. In the opening to camera interview, Sono is asked about his “controversial” image and overseas success to which he laments that Japanese audiences are wary of anything unconventional and particularly allergic to the “wacky Japan” tag that often dogs attempts to sell Japanese media overseas. Unorthodox views or ways of working are unwelcome, as are those who live in unorthodox ways.

Perhaps for these reasons, 2015 saw Sono diving headfirst into the populist with mixed results. Avowing at a press conference that he believes in “quantity over quality”, Sono commits himself to simply making films hoping some of them might turn out OK. Thus his more straightforwardly commercial projects, Shinjuku Swan for example, are often filled with unconventional ideas but perhaps lack the sense of attack found in his more potent work, covering a lack of substance with intentional boldness. The Whispering Star, as we see, brings him full circle. Picking up the Tarkovskian influences seen in one of his most impressive early features – the sadly neglected The Room, the minimalist sci-fi drama also encompasses his compassion for the people of Fukushima whose ongoing strife has become a recurrent concern from the ruined landscapes of Himizu to the more directly political Land of Hope.

It’s this essential sense of compassion which Oshima’s documentary seems keenest to capture. Through in person interviews with some of Sono’s frequent collaborators including Himizu’s Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido who characterise the director as an eccentric uncle, and his actress wife Megumi Kagurazaka (the lead in Whispering Star) who breaks down in tears remembering the sometimes difficult days of their earlier collaborations, Sono’s art emerges less as an attack on a conservative society than an exercise in melancholy sarcasm that, at heart, believes the world can be better than it is. A friend of his puts this quality best when she (part correcting herself for triteness) states that despite his sometimes controversial approach, she believes he just wants everyone to be happy and is attempting to transcend his own ideas in order to cut through to something new.

Then again perhaps Sono puts this best himself in accidentally citing a life philosophy. Art is not about good and bad; life is not about good and bad. “Paint! Express! Live!” – what better encapsulation of an artist’s credo could there be?


Released by Third Window Films as part of a double feature pack with The Whispering Star.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King 2 (西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精, Cheang Pou-soi, 2016)

Monkey King 2 posterThe 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)