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The common Cantonese phrase “moon tin sun fat” — which translates as “Gods galore in the sky” — is used to refer to a chaotic state of struggling to get a handle on numerous loose ends. It’s a more than apt description for Hong Kong director Soi Cheang‘s largely mainland Chinese-financed take on the classic 16thcentury Chinese fantasy novel Journey to the West. Focusing on the rite of passage of the story’s primate hero Sun Wukong, The Monkey King is filled to the brim with gravity-defying saints and sprites zipping across the screen in a litany of kinetic 3-D action sequences. But the stellar imagery hardly makes up for the film’s underwritten narrative, half-baked characterizations and emotional gimmicks.
Finally finished after many a mooted release over the past two years — the film’s production actually began in 2010, before Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which released to commercial acclaim this time last year – The Monkey King credits four screenwriters and two directors of photography. Surveying the result, the project indeed feels as if too many talents spent too much time dragging the film in different directions, without it ever coming to a satisfactory, full-fledged end. Leaving many of the story’s themes of kinship, betrayal and revolution untapped, the film is also weighed down by a lack of experimentation in style and storytelling, not to mention a dearth of innovation or precision in its slapdash 3D digital effects.
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All those missed opportunities, however, have since been glossed over by the film’s booming performance at the box office: released on Jan. 30 over the Lunar New Year holidays in mainland China, the film broke Iron Man 3‘s opening-day record in the country and has since taken $90.4 million there. A sequel is now in the offing, with the producers confident enough to have already hinted at the prospect onscreen by bookending the film with a monolog by Yuanzhuang (voiced by Louis Koo), the monk who would lead the monkey on a trip to secure holy scriptures in the next installment. Outside China, the presence of names such as Donnie Yen and Chow Yun-fat might appeal to Asian cinema aficionados, but a limited release will likely be the way forward for a piece that would need more stylistic innovation to avoid paling before its Hollywood counterparts.
Having established himself as one of Hong Kong’s most promising young auteurs with festival entries such as the Johnnie To-produced Accident and Motorway, Cheang might sense the irony of scoring his most commercially successful hit with a film on which he didn’t (or couldn’t) impose his own creative imprint — apart from the faint strain of a dehumanized lead protagonist struggling to engage with stifling social norms, a Cheang hallmark.
The monkey king (played by Yen, nearly unrecognizable in heavy make-up and/or digitally enhanced attire) begins the film blissfully unaware of his supernatural roots, as he leads his life as a mischievous chieftain of a tribe of primates in a small cave, using his exceptional dexterity to pick fruits and impress his charges. But his origins are accounted for well before he is introduced onscreen. During the film’s prolog – a high-octane, all-destructive battle between the upstanding Jade Emperor (Chow) and the horned, evil-incarnate Bull Devil (Aaron Kwok, Cold War) – the former is banished to exile by the latter, and the goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) reconstructing the world with crystals generated from her body.
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The monkey’s embryo is nurtured within one of these crystals, a paranormal beginning that leads to a sage, Puti (Hai Yitian), taking him away for some training and guidance. Bestowed with the name Sun Wukong and now seeing a much bigger world he might play with, he goes on to terrorize other deities (such as his destruction of the East Sea Palace, where he secures his legendary cudgel) and unleash bedlam in the Jade Emperor’s kingdom (where he briefly serves as the master of sovereign’s royal stable, an official appointment going horribly awry).
All this monkey business is played out over a darker conspiracy bubbling underneath, as Bull Devil attempts to avenge for his defeat with plans for another offensive at the heavenly realm. Defying discord with his wife (Joe Chen) – the Jade Emperor’s younger sister who eventually becomes the famed Iron Fan Princess – Bull prepares for his attack, as he secures inside help from “Erlangshen” Yang Jian (Peter Ho), the warrior god seeking a step up in the celestial hierarchy after spending most of his years as a gatekeeper. Aware of Wukong’s abilities and divine destiny, Bull also plants white-fox spirit Ruxue (Xia Zitong) into his life, with the hope of using the pair’s growing bond to incite the monkey in rebelling against the Emperor.
Somehow, these marginalized figures’ struggles with their lot all fall through the cracks, as the aspects of humanity they represent — piety, ambition and love — never really get substantially articulated. Then again, even the major characters come across as distinctly lackluster, with the Jade Emperor lacking poise, Bull short of menace and the Monkey King himself appearing mostly like a jester capering about, void of the subversion which defines him both in the original novel and also in the many modern film and TV adaptations of the tome. For all their glimmering costumes — designed by a foursome comprising the newly Oscar-nominated William Chang (The Grandmaster) — this triumvirate of god-like characters come across as distinctly two-dimensional protagonists struggling to find some lyrical life in a three-dimensional spectacle. It’s all much a deity about nothing.
Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2014
Production Companies: Filmko Entertainment, Shenzhen Golden Shores Films in a presentation by Filmko Entertainment (Beijing), Mandarin Films, China Film Group, Beijing Wen Hua Dong Run Investment and J Star Film, in association with Zhejiang HG Entertainment, Dongguan Boning Enterprise and Investment, Shenzhen Golden Shores Films, Filmko Entertainment
Director: Soi Cheang
Cast: Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat, Aaron Kwok, Peter Ho, Joe Chen, Hai Yitian
Producer: Kiefer Liu
Executive Producers: Kiefer Liu, Zhao Haicheng, Chen Jingshi, Luo Qi, Han Lei, Ye Dewei, Zhang Quanxin, Hou Li, with Harvey Wong, Cheng Keung-fai, Han Sanping, Mu Yedong, Zhang Quanyin, and co-produced by Xu Yongan, Chen Canqiu
Screenwriters: Edmund Wong, Huo Xin, Szeto Kam-yuen, Chen Dali
Directors of Photography: Yang Tao, Cheung Man-po
Editor: Cheung Ka-fai
Production Designer: Daniel Fu
Art Director: Yang Changzhi
Costume Designers: William Chang, Yee Chung-man, Guo Pei, Lee Pik-kwan
Music: Christopher Young
Action Director: Donnie Yen
Visual Effects Directors: Kevin Rafferty, Ding Libo
Stereoscopic Designer and Cinematographer: Daniel L. Symmes
International Sales: Filmko Entertainment
In Cantonese (Hong Kong version)/Mandarin (mainland Chinese version)
No rating, 119 minutes
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