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Sometime in the future, Monk Comes Down the Mountain will be considered a watershed for its star and its maker.
Handling dastardly duels and taut drama with aplomb, Wang Baoqiang has finally proven his versatility previously confined by his typecast supporting roles as either clueless bumpkins (Lost in Thailand) or crazed villains (A Touch of Sin, Kung Fu Jungle). With his layered performance as a naive cleric undergoing a complex rite of passage, the actor has cemented his phenomenal rise from a penniless extra to top-billing material in just more than a decade.
Meanwhile, Chen Kaige is undertaking a departure, too, as he embraces the conventional blockbuster by forsaking his long-running, self-imposed duty of representing, through period-drama allegories or here-and-now storylines, the effects of the Cultural Revolution on the Chinese national psyche. Unlike his lead on-the-up actor, however, the director doesn’t really know where he’s heading. Rather than adapting an existing text to his own styles and themes – something he has successfully achieved with various material, from the historical epic Farewell My Concubine to the social-media satire Caught in the Web – Chen has delivered a piece driven by an episodic plot and a relentless stream of images smacking heavily of deja vu.
Make no mistake: this Columbia-backed China-U.S. co-production is a technically accomplished slice of mainstream entertainment. With Hong Kong action choreographer Ku Huen-chu‘s stunning fights presented vividly by Geoffrey Simpson‘s camera work and rendered in convincing 3-D, Monk Comes Down the Mountain is no repeat of Chen’s messy VFX-laden fantasy drama The Promise. While certainly more commercially palatable – box-office revenue for the film has already topped $37 million four days into its run that began on July 2 – Monk lacks the full-fledged coherence and simmering social undertones underlining nearly all of Chen’s previous Chinese-language films, The Promise included. Columbia faces a difficult sell for the film beyond China either in terms of festival bookings or a niche release.
Chen’s film was based on Xu Haofeng‘s novel A Monk Comes Down the Mountain, in which a listless young Taoist cleric finds himself playing Virgil in an infernal 1930s Chinese city teeming with warring martial arts clans, secret policemen, Japanese spies and treasure hunters from Nazi Germany. Perhaps aware of the sprawling and potentially controversial nature of some of these threads, Chen and his screenwriter Zhang Ting trimmed the premise and reshaped the story simply as a test of endurance for He Anxia (Wang) as he comes to terms with greed and desire – other people’s and his own – in a land of power-hungry schemers and intimacy-starved sirens.
Sent off to the real world after triumphing in a fight in his monastery, He’s first skirmish with so-called civilization comes in the shape of a story structured along the lines of The Golden Lotus (and evoked with key visuals echoing Li Han-hsiang‘s 1974 film based on the novel). Taking up shelter and work at a medical clinic, He witnesses with anguish how his mentor, the short and homely surgeon Tsui Daoning (Fan Wei, City of Life and Death) is betrayed by his porcelain-beauty wife Yuzhen (Lin Chi-ling, Red Cliff) and his handsome and narcissistic younger brother Daorong (Vaness Wu).
With his hands dirtied and heart broken, He falls straight into yet another conspiracy after witnessing a deadly duel between righteous fighter Zhao Xinchuan (Danny Chan, Shaolin Soccer) and his manipulative master Peng Qianwu (Yuen Wah, Kung Fu Hustle), a fight presented in the hyper-cartoonish style of kung fu popularized by the two actors’ former collaborator Stephen Chau. A coincidental drug-induced adventure with Peng’s son Qizi (Jaycee Chan) leads He to discover the past and present power struggle within Peng’s clan of Tai Chi fighters through a meeting with Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok), whose lowly temple-sweeper facade belies his previous standing as Peng Qianwu’s rival for control of his clan.
The film’s whirling final act comes as he tracks down Cha (Chang Chen, The Assassin), Zhou’s soul mate and a formidable martial arts practitioner now earning a living as a Chinese opera performer. In what could be aptly described as a jamming of visual and narrative riffs taken from Wong Kar-wai‘s The Grandmaster, Jiang Wen‘s Gone with the Bullets and Chen’s very own Farewell My Concubine, He and Cha stand together to combat both the Pengs and also his mobster-warlord patron (Lam Suet, a regular in Johnnie To‘s oeuvre). The showdown leads He to muse, in a voiceover, about following Cha’s guidance and human existence.
But it’s an abrupt and empty epiphany. What is most striking about He Anxia’s travels and travails is how he is easily spellbound by self-styled svengalis, with Cha just the last in a long line of wildly different characters the young man would readily call his master. As He takes on yet another mentor, the last one and his influences on the young man swiftly dissipate.
Maybe this is Chen’s subtle message about the frivolous nature of personal loyalties in a chaotic age, but it’s more tempting to see this as an unintentional parallel to Chen’s filmmaking itself. As an actor, Wang might have welcomed the opportunity to show off his multiple skills as the film swerves wildly between storytelling tenors and visual aesthetics; but as a filmmaker, Chen’s voice disintegrates and melts into banality.
Perhaps Chen should have really heeded the maxim put forward by He’s first master, the Taoist reverend Ruoyin (Li Xuejian) – that “whoever stays true to himself is a real hero.” Rather than searching for a road into the thrill-seeking punter’s heart, Chen might be better off looking inward to probe his and his country’s scarred soul.
Production companies: New Classics Media, Beijing 21st Century Shengkai Film, Columbia Pictures
Cast: Wang Baoqiang, Aaron Kwok, Chang Chen, Lin Chi-ling
Director: Chen Kaige
Screenwriter: Chen Kaige and Zhang Ting, based on the novel ‘A Monk Comes Down the Mountain’ by Xu Haofeng
Producers: Chen Hong, Liu Jun, Tian Tian
Executive producer: Cao Huayi, Chen Hong
Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson
Production designer: Han Zhong
Costume designer: Chen Tongxun
Editor: Wayne Wahrman
Music: George Acogny
International Sales: Columbia Pictures
No rating; 120 minutes
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