The Monkey King 3 (西遊記女兒國, Cheang Pou-soi, 2018)

the monkey king 3 posterSun Wu Kong and his band of merry scripture seekers will face many challenges on their journey to the West, but none so dangerous as the poison of love! Aaron Kwok reprises his role as the titular Monkey King in the third of the ongoing series directed by Cheang Pou-soi (here credited as Soi Cheang) but steps back a few paces into a supporting role while noble hearted monk Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) takes centre stage to face the multifaceted dilemma of love and personal fulfilment vs the fulfilment of his quest to better the lives of all mankind. An age old problem, but one you can’t truly address until you have stake in the game.

Xuanzang, now returned and dressed in white, has a romantic destiny – something which makes him a little nervous as he happily sails along a picturesque river in the company of companions Wujing (Him Law) and Zhubajie (Xiaoshenyang) while Wu Kong (Aaron Kwok) flies along behind, apparently having mislaid his trousers somewhere along the way. All of a sudden the atmosphere darkens as the gang sail into a “demonic” area where they are attacked by a giant, whale-like river god and subsequently thrown into another dimension thanks to an intervention from the Goddess of Mercy (now played by Liu Tao in place of the series’ previous cameo from Kelly Chen).

The guys have inadvertently landed themselves in Womanland which is 100% man free. In fact men are illegal and to be executed on sight which is a bit of a problem seeing as it’s also impossible to leave. Not so much of a problem, however, as the strange moment which occurred between Xuanzang and the Queen of Womanland (Zhao Liying) as their eyes met during a near fatal fall from a cliff edge. Following the childish exuberance of the first film and the morbidly gothic horror of the second, it’s love which now threatens to derail our heroes’ quest and with it the possibility of salvation for all mankind.

Womanland was founded by a woman scorned who turned her back on faithless men forevermore, instructing her followers that men are selfish and duplicitous, that they lie to win the hearts of women which they later break in forsaking them for the next conquest. The holy scriptures of Womanland warn of the “poison of love” which is (usually, they say) spread from man to woman and leads to nothing but inescapable suffering. Foreswearing all romance (apparently there is no concept of romantic love in the all woman kingdom save the rumour that there was once a young woman who fell in love with a river she was never able to see) turns out not to be the best solution to the problem as we discover that all the ruckus in the world above is in someway caused by these repressed or denied emotions as well as by a failure to accept that sometimes feelings must be sacrificed in favour of greater responsibilities.

Whereas the second film pitted Wu Kong and Xuanzang against each other as advocates of compassion and rationality, this time Xuanzang must face a monk’s dilemma alone in deciding whether the love of one woman is equal to that of the whole of mankind. His choice is a forgone conclusion but serves to remind the monk that denying one’s true feelings is not the same as facing them and wilfully isolating oneself from possible suffering is not the same as overcoming it. The residents of Womanland discover something similar in the parallel journey of their embittered first minister (Gigi Leung) whose own unfulfilled romantic desires have made her cruel and vindictive only to be presented with another choice and find herself denying love for duty once again.

Duty, however, turns out to be warmer than it sounds – in Womanland, maternal love trumps the romantic, undercutting the otherwise progressive atmosphere of a society of women doing fine on their own with a return to maternity as central virtue of womanhood. Love is the force which threatens to undo carefully won civility (a “bourgeois affectation” as the more dogmatic definition would have it), but desire repressed rivals love scorned as a force to burn the world. Xuanzang has a choice to make, but the choice itself is not so important as the conscious act of choosing. Aside from a bizarre subplot featuring male pregnancy and forced abortion, Monkey King 3 makes a largely successful shift away from gung-ho adventuring into poignant romantic melodrama. With the gang en route to Fire Mountain, where will their journey take them next?


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion Film.

International 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)

The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮, Cheang Pou-soi, 2014)

Monkey King (donnie yen) posterEverybody 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)