'The Monkey King 2': Film Review

The Monkey King Still 3 - H 2016
Courtesy Filmko Pictures Co., Ltd
A fun spin on a well-worn legend.

Gong Li joins Aaron Kwok and director Cheang Pou-soi for the follow-up to the 2014 hit fantasy-adventure.

The timing couldn’t be more apropos for Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King 2, the sequel to the popular 2014 actioner starring Donnie Yen and Aaron Kwok, opening as it does on the eve of the Year of the Monkey. Picking up with considerably more storytelling assurance and technical prowess than the first film demonstrated, Cheang and his army of writers dive into the action quickly, ensuring they leave room for actual character development and narrative cohesion this time around. Briskly paced with (mostly) strong visuals and the requisite gravity-defying action choreography (this time courtesy of Hong Kong martial-arts stalwart Sammo Hung), this Monkey King is one of the strongest entries into the long list of films and television series based on the literary classic by Wu Chengen.

Opening stateside ahead of home markets in Hong Kong and China, Monkey King 2 is unlikely to find the same success there as it should find in Asia, but audiences looking for some rip-roaring family adventure (though some segments may be a bit intense for very young kids) should sit up and take notice. It's got more cultural meat on its bones that what Kung Fu Panda 3 offers, and it's arguably the most accessible spin on the legend to grace screens in years.

The sequel picks up after the end of the first Monkey King with the more familiar chunk from the source material. Wukong (Kwok, taking over Yen’s role) escapes his prison underneath the Five Elements Mountain and is ordered by the Goddess Kuanyin to escort a young monk, Xuanzang (William Feng), west to collect the sacred scrolls that will bring peace to the world. Watery Wujing (Him Law) and pig-demon Baije (Xiao Shenyang) join them as disciples along the way, and the quartet heads out on something of a picaresque journey. Before long they discover someone has been kidnapping children from small villages, and later they cross paths with the White Bone Spirit (Gong Li), who wants to “eat” Xuanzang in order to gain eternal life, youth and beauty. Could she be the one taking the kids?

The Monkey King 2 is served well by Cheang’s willingness to keep the story straightforward and linear, weaving the various threads together seamlessly and complementing it with its outré action and stunts rather than smothering it with them. Though the visual effects are, for the most part, respectable and the fight choreography is suitably, impeccably frantic (sometimes too frantic to see clearly), some stand out more than others. Whenever Gong is on the screen (at one time channeling Maleficent) as the ghostly, wispy, half-CGI White Bone Spirit, it’s never less than eye-catching. It helps that Gong gets a chance to show off precisely why she’s a big-time movie star. She makes the most benign side-eye ripe with meaning and never lets White Bone Spirit collapse into one-note villainy. Kwok looks comfortably athletic and manages more nuance in the reckless, impulsive Wukong than Yen did. Effects and music — by Shaun Smith and Christopher Young, respectively — are the right side of hyper-fantastical and propulsive and dovetail perfectly with Daniel Fu's vivid, tactile production design.

It all leads to the most welcome additions, or changes, here: genuine drama, tension and character shading, three crucial elements the half-baked 2014 film forgot. Aside from Gong turning in a performance that nearly rivals Brigitte Lin’s in the classic The Bride With White Hair, Kwok continues his mid-period career renaissance with another oddball role to which he totally commits. It pays off for him, as Wukong is one of his most energetic and cheeky performances in recent memory, and best of all he looks as if he’s having fun. Kwok and Gong make for wholly engaging antagonists, strange as the combination may be, but it's easy to forget Feng as the monk on a mission. He has the less flashy role as a young man struggling to adhere to his faith but whose commitment never inspires eye-rolling, all too common in stories that rely on one character's unshakable beliefs. They're all fortunate enough to have a tight, efficient script to work from — a screenplay that knows when to take it down a notch to let ambiguity, reflection, regret and moral uncertainty dominate a scene and which deftly manages to juggle comedy, drama, fantasy and Buddhist dogma.

Distributor: China Lion
Production company: Filmko Pictures
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, William Feng, Xiao Shen Yang, Him Law, Kris Phillips, Kelly Chen

Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Screenwriters: Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man, Yin Yiyi
Producer: Kiefer Liu
Executive producers: Wong Hoifung, La Peikang, Zhang Mao, Wang Hong, Li Gaofeng, Mu Yedong, Sun Zhonghuai, Gong Yu, Dai Zigeng, David Lim, Zeng Liang, Kong Qi, Richard Lim, Kirin Lee, Chen Canqiu
Directors of photography: Yang Tao, Cheung Man Po
Production designer: Daniel Fu
Costume designers: Kenneth Chung-Man Yee, Dora Ng
Editors: Angie Lam, Yau Chi Wai, Lucy Lu
Music: Christopher Young
World sales: Filmko Films Distribution

In Mandarin

Not rated, 119 minutes