'The Monkey King 3': Film Review

A novel, if delirious, series wrap-up that leaves room for more.

Aaron Kwok returns to complete Soi Cheang’s final entry in the latest trilogy based on the classic Chinese legend 'Journey to the West.'

Wu Chengen’s 100-part literary classic Journey to the West could be seen as the Iliad or the Shakespeare of China, in that it’s the literary classic that always seems ripe for reimagining. In director Soi Cheang’s final (based on the closing shots, perhaps) installment of his three-part spin on the legend, The Monkey King 3 ventures into the book’s later chapters that are less familiar to Western audiences for a delicately cheeky and timely missed opportunity. Pivoting this time on pious monk Xuanzang’s sputtering romance with the emergent queen of a kingdom populated solely by women, Cheang does his able best to balance a love story with the heightened fantasy action expected of the previous two films, and after a rocky start he largely succeeds.

As the theory states, a hero is only as interesting as their villain, and Cheang and Co. peaked in part two, where Mainland superstar Gong Li hammed it up as the child-eating, immortality-seeking White Bone Spirit — never a raised eyebrow out of place — opposite an inspired Aaron Kwok as Wukong, the impish Monkey King. This time around, Xuanzang’s (William Feng) disciples take a back seat to his emotional quagmire, which not only bloats the film’s running time but also blunts its action. Nonetheless, The Monkey King 3 has enough eye-catching set pieces, CGI and wirework to keep things rolling and ensure a place near the top of Lunar New Year box office at home in Hong Kong and China. Success in Asia-Pacific will come from completists rounding out the trilogy. Overseas genre events aren’t beyond the realm of possibility, particularly if the women’s colony angle is exploited.

The story starts with Xuanzang, Wukong, the pig demon Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and gloriously blue sand demon Wujing (Him Law) chugging up a river, still en route to reclaiming the sacred Buddhist scrolls when they encounter a River God and are tossed into a hidden colony. In a hilariously endless tumble, Xuanzang spies the Queen (Zhao Liying) of the innovatively named Womanland of Western Liang, and it’s love at first sight. Problem is, the women of Womanland have been raised to believe men are poisonous, and the Queen’s preceptor and protector (Hong Kong veteran Gigi Leung) immediately orders Xuanzang and his crew executed. The Queen is suffering terminal lovesickness however, and helps the four escape. That’s when the adventure starts, one filled with surprise pregnancies, unsavory induced miscarriages (!), a quest to flee across the Sea of Suffering and an eerily perceptive CGI reindeer.

Make no mistake, The Monkey King 3 is bonkers, but in a charming, delirious sort of way, with energy to spare and another strong performance by Kwok that's far more nuanced than it needs to be. There are more than a few moments where dodgy CG reveals itself, and in late-2000s fashion, the action is so kinetic as to be nearly unfathomable. But the film does have its moments: Xuanzang and the Queen’s journey across the misty, eerie sea; the possibility the residents of Womanland turning to stone where they stand; and the climactic sequence where the angry River God nearly lays waste to Womanland boast some stellar visuals. Not so much the precocious child of a scrap of scroll (seriously, it’s a piece of paper as a kindergarten brat). Shaun Smith’s makeup effects are strong, and it would have been nice to see them, and Cho Hwa Sung’s bright, popping production design, clearly rather than have them muddled by dark 3D glasses.

The Monkey King 3 didn’t need to be 3D, and it could have trimmed its romance — or refocused it. Once it becomes clear Xuanzang et al's escape from Womanland hinges on love as the key to locating the gate, the film settles into long stretches of insipid romantic philosophizing, with Xuanzang wrestling with his budding romantic feelings and devotion to his Tang vows and the Queen pondering her duty, the wider world she may now be able to see and a doomsday prophecy. In itself that’s not a terrible story, but Feng and Zhao are a less than riveting couple, making their dilemmas leaden soap opera instead of compelling crises of conscience or identity, even if that unfolds within the parameters of a fantasy romp.

The film’s biggest crimes, however, sit with how Cheang and writer Elvis Man drop the ball on the preceptor’s failed romance and Womanland itself. The subplot involving the preceptor’s complex, unrequited love with the River God is sneakily subversive, given the God being identified as male but the physical character itself being wholly androgynous, if not outright feminine (and played by a female actor, Lin Chiling). It’s a more engrossing, universal story (career or love?) even without the blurred gender lines. And despite being a thriving society free of men, when trouble rears its head, it's Wukong and Xuanzang who swoop in to save the day. The Queen spends the final fight unconscious, and the preceptor runs around begging for the men’s help. In the wake of Wonder Woman and Black Panther’s active-not-reactive female characters, The Monkey King 3 feels like a missed opportunity to pass the baton to those films’ Asian sisters.

Production companies: Filmko Film Co., Shanghai Hanna Pictures
Distributor: Well Go USA
Aaron Kwok, William Feng, Zhao Liying, Xiao Shenyang, Him Law, Lin Chiling, Gigi Leung, Kingdom Yuen, Pan Binlong, Cecilia So, Shi Shi
Director: Soi Cheang
Screenwriter: Elvis Man
Producer: Soi Cheang
Executive producer: Wong Hoifung
Director of photography: Richard Bluck, Yang Tao
Production designer: Cho Hwa Sung
Costume designer: Lee Pik-Kwan
Editor: Yau Chi Wai
Music: Yu Kobayashi

In Cantonese Dubbed