WukongReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/20/17 00:22:21
SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You shouldn't judge a movie by its trailer any more than you should judge a book by its cover, especially the teaser-style thing for "Wukong" that ran before every Chinese-language film that played my local theater over the last couple of months, but it's still worth mentioning that this isn't exactly the dark, gritty Monkey King re-imagining that implied, but another oft-comedic fantasy adventure featuring the powerful but mischievous demigod, and while it's a fair question as to whether the world needs another one of those, it's at least an entertaining one, even if it does stretch its budget a bit.It starts in the heavens, where the Destiny Council is preparing to select new immortals 300 years after the escape of a rebellious stone giant ended with the destruction of Mount Huaguo, where the Azi (Ni Ni) eagerly awaits the return of childhood friend Erlang Shen (Shawn Yue Man-lok), whose third eye stays persistently closed a side-effect of his having a mortal father and an immortal mother, only to be interrupted by Sun Wukong (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who has climbed his way to Heaven to exact revenge for the destruction of his home. Wukong is captured, but the leader of the council, Hua Ji (Yu Feihong) places him in the custody of Azi with a "crown" that will squeeze his head painfully on demand. Undaunted, Wukong still attempts to destroy the Destiny Astrolabe, but that results in him, Azi, Erlang, Hua Ji's enforcer Tian Peng (O Ho), and mechanically-inclined Juanlian (Qiao Shan) being cast down to the crater where Huaguo used to be without their powers, finding the locals menaced by a storm demon.
Though the film opens with a bit of narration that tends toward the grandiose, it gets funny fairly quickly. The Sun Wukong introduced in the first act is not any sort of Monkey King but a shaggy guy in worn clothing strutting with a sort of goofy confidence that is both matched and complemented, an elegant princess who nevertheless is inclined to scrap. Director Derek Kwok Chi-kin and four other writers give the characters big, brash personalities and have them banter as they knock each other around with outsized weapons - Wukong's signature staff often seems like something out of a cartoon, even as it glows red through a black crust like lava. Even after they fall to earth, there's a cheeriness to how they pull together under Azi's leadership, drawing comedy not just from how Juanlian's previously ridiculed devices may be their best hope but from how Wukong and Erlang argue like children over how to best implement it and take credit.
It highlights what a fun cast the filmmakers have assembled. Eddie Peng makes an entertaining Wukong, capturing him as genuinely funny and cocky even if there is a real undercurrent of anger to him that will fuel him later, with a good melancholy spot in between. He's a good match for Ni Ni, who dives in with enthusiasm early on, looking delighted to actually be in on some action that matters, not quite losing that delight as she has to become a little more mature to be a leader and carrying a weight when things get really serious. Qiao Shan is a fun extra piece as the team's gadget guy, and while O Ho seems like a bland fighter early on, but shines a bit as the film gives him a subplot, more than Shawn Yue gets to in a bigger role. Yu Feihong makes a fine mentor/villain, dangerous in how cool and assured she comes off rather than being exaggeratedly cold or manic.
As good as all these pieces are, things stumble a bit as the tone of the film changes. It happens naturally enough in places - for all the light-hearted material on either side, the fight on the bridge that sends the immortals down to Earth is played straight - but the second half of the movie is something of a hard shift introducing a bunch of never-seen-before bad guys to erase the process the heroes made (and a separate deus ex machina to erase what the villains have achieved), realigning allegiances for abstract reasons, and talking up destiny and free will as big ideas but not really giving them the thematic heft. Wukong and Hua Ji have important things to shout each other, but they just feel like excuses for big CGI effects, not expressions of their personality as they were before (heck, it doesn't even feel like empty rhetoric used to justify the immortals holding onto power, as some of the narration implies).
All of this is really there to set up big action pieces, and those tend to be pretty good. It's a heavily effects-based blockbuster, and I suspect that the finale in particular looks terrific on China's Imax 3D screens. As with a lot of intended eye-poppers from China, the effects aren't quite as good as what you get out of Hollywood, occasionally looking like something out of a video game from a couple years ago rather than state of the art, although the visuals tend to look slick, with nice design (especially for Jualian's devices) and, when there's a bit of a break in the storm of FX elements, not-bad action choreography underneath.Add it up, and it's another Monkey King movie, more fun than the ones starring Kenny Lin and Aaron Kwok that have been released in the past year and a half (and themselves sequels to movies featuring other actors in the role, with another planned for next year). It's probably better than most of this recent flood, although I wonder just how much all these movies will have run together a few years down the road.
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