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Not content to simply run hot and cold, Hong Kong director Derek Kwok plays fast and loose with the Chinese legend Journey to the West in his latest, Wu Kong, which runs more like scalding and icy. Careening wildly from visually boggling to tired and stilted, Kwok’s (Gallants) adaptation of Jin Hezai’s popular web novel Wukong Zhuan — an origin story at its core — is clearly an allegory about state oppression, identity and self-determination. Sadly though, he and his army of writers forget to keep the fantasy action moving and write characters deeper than sketches. Following the relative fluffiness of Full Strike, Kwok steps back into the world of legend he was allegedly unceremoniously bounced from in 2013 with Journey to the West (co-directed by Stephen Chow) for what is the fourth movie to mine the same material in the last five years. Beloved though he may be, that’s a lot of Monkey King, and at a reboot pace that leaves Spider-Man in the dust, the strain is starting to show.
Handily winning China’s mid-summer Hollywood blackout period sweeps, Wu Kong is fortunate to have Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng taking up the role of Sun Wu Kong from Huang Bo (2013), Donnie Yen (2014) and Aaron Kwok (2016). Peng is a natural charmer; handsome and playful, his early-going Wu Kong-via-Loony Tunes goofiness soon gives way to a curious — and potentially compelling — portrait of the iconic character as simultaneously more feral and less animalistic. But he has little to work with in the script, and most of what he does is ultimately in vain. Nonetheless Peng, the equally popular Shawn Yue (Love off the Cuff), vibrant images and typically over-the-top action (when it happens) make for a cocktail that could win over audiences in Asia, assuming they’re not tired of the story. It should also help the film find a slot with genre festivals; fatigue, however, is likely to set in when it comes to other overseas markets.
The film starts with a gorgeously rendered calligraphic prologue explaining that the Immortals of the Heavenly Kingdom, having decided Pure Evil lives in the Heart of the Stone and inside Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King, obliterate the peaceful Mount Huaguo where he lives with his master. He vows revenge, and 300 years later makes his way to heaven to confront — and destroy — the mastermind behind the decision, Tianzun (Yu Feihong, imperious, but not making anyone forget Gong Li’s villain from Cheang Po-Soi’s The Monkey King 2). After some kitchen thievery and resulting fisticuffs, Wu Kong finds himself falling back to the earthly realm with Azi (Ni Ni, Warriors Gate), her childhood friend Erlang (Yue), her devoted sidekick Juanlian (Qiao Shan) and Tianzun’s right hand assassin Tianpeng (O Ho).
Upon landing in the wasteland that is now Huaguo, the group, suddenly mortal, learns to work together to restore the village’s glory, thumbing their noses at the idea that the Heavenly Kingdom and its Destiny Astrolabe has any power over their lives; life’s what you make it and no faceless council is going to dictate otherwise. Naturally, Tianzun disagrees, and brings even more authoritarian will to bear on the gang and Huaguo. Tragedy ensues.
Devoid as Wu Kong is of the supporting players and familiar adventures most recognizable to audiences, Kwok and Co. need to work extra hard in creating a backstory worthy of the legend and only succeed in flashes. Peng’s hammy, campy Wu Kong eventually gives way to a darker, more conflicted Monkey King, and the kernel of an engaging story is buried in there somewhere. One of the film’s best sequences comes when Wu Kong goes full Monkey, and erupts in a violent (yet bloodless) spasm of rage. Try as he might to lays the groundwork for where this rage comes from, Kwok’s narrative and Wu Kong’s motivations suffocate under his allegory. A lumpy second act — complete with requisite romances (for Wu Kong and Tianpeng) — doesn’t help the pacing, and threatens to run the film off the rails altogether.
Aside from Wu Kong’s final boss fight with Tianzun (which simply dispenses with any concerns over space or scale), there are several set pieces that stand out: a battle with Celestial Warriors that come to Huaguo to crush the rebellion, the gonzo flight from the Kingdom and a captive cloud demon among them. Patrick Baxter (The Mist, The Strain) and Henri Wong’s visual effects get the job done, and action director Ku Huan-Chiu’s wirework is unsurprisingly spry, but all their efforts are in support of a fantasy romp that’s more concerned with making a point than with either fantasy or romping.
Production companies: New Classic Media Corporation, Shanghai Sanciyuan Entertainment, Tianjin Movie Entertainment Co. Ltd., New Classic International Media Group Corporation Ltd.
Cast: Eddie Peng, Shawn Yue, Ni Ni, O Ho, Zheng Shuang, Qiao Shan, Yang Di, Wang Deshun, Yu Feihong
Director: Derek Kwok
Screenwriters: Huang Hai, Jin Hezai, Derek Kwok, Fan Wenwen, Henri Wong
Producers: Liu Wenyang, Cao Huayi, Shen Haobo, Rene Ren
Executive producers: Gao Yuan, Huang Jianxin, Ivy Kong
Director of photography: Jason Kwan
Production designer: Eric Lam
Costume designer: Lee Pik-Kwan
Editor: Matthew Hui
Music: Teddy Robin, Chu Wan-Pin
World sales: NCM China
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