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Monkey King 2, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not an auspicious start to the Year of the Monkey."
2 stars

Believe it or not, this is not the first Chinese fantasy sequel I've seen where not having seen the predecessor was no big deal because it starts with "500 years have passed..." This is a good thing, because the first movie in an expected Monkey King trilogy never made it to the U.S. (a recurrent event as day-and-date releases become more common). Given that the general word is that this one fixed some of what was wrong with the first, I'm not necessarily eager to catch up; it's a sleek but dull take on the mythology.

As mentioned, the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) has been imprisoned within the Five Elements Mountain since the "Havoc in Heaven" he caused in the last film, but prophecy says he will escort a monk to the west to retrieve a set of scriptures, and that happens right away, with Tang Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) removing the spell that binds Wukong only for another to take effect. They soon meet up with a pair of demonic but friendly traveling companions in Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and Sha Wujing (Him Law), but another demon along the way will not be so friendly: The White Bone Demon (Gong Li) is about to reincarnate but has no desire to become human again, and it is said that consuming Xuanzang will grant immortality in one's current form.

The clash with the White Bone Demon is just one of many chapters of Journey to the West, though a pivotal one, featuring a sharp conflict between Xuanzang and Wukong - Wukong can see through demons' disguises with his Fiery Eyes of Truth while the naive Xuanzang can only see him killing what appear to be innocent people. It proves to be less material than the movie needs, though, the plot frequently stalls and a detour involving a king who is drinking the blood of children and allowing the demon to take the blame feels more like stalling than an interesting twist. There's a classic structure to this story, but it could do with less repetition and more progress.

If the film drags in terms of story, it undeniably makes an impressive attempt to make up for that visually. Shot and rendered in what appears to be native 3D, The Monkey King 2 doesn't overwhelm with a need to fill the screen constantly - director Cheang Pou-Soi recognizes that a character with Sun Wukong's superpowers needs a lot of open space to play - but the digital creature effects are very high in quality, some of the best to come out of China, with just the right weight as Sun Wukong jumps from cloud to cloud or whips his Golden Cudgel around. Nearly every character spends a fair amount of time in prosthetic makeup, and that looks good as well, transformative but still giving the actors room for expression.

Aaron Kwok has the biggest challenge along those lines; Sun Wukong never disguises himself as human. He's actually taking over the part from Donnie Yen after having played the villain in the previous film, and while I can't say whether or not he is an improvement, he's a match to the challenges of the job, emoting will through a lot of make-up and paying up the character's goofy laughter and kid-movie stuff without ever making him silly or juvenile. Nobody else in the film is really a match to him; Gong Li only briefly dives into the cartoon villainy her White Bone Demon needs, and Feng Shaofeng has a similar problem, never really selling Xuanzang as particularly wise or naive. Xiao Shengyang and Him Law are okay as Xuanzang's other disciples, and Kelly Chen is at least serene as the Goddess seeing the group's tasks.

Sammo Hung is in charge of the action, and I wonder just how much of the staging of the CGI-heavy scenes comes from the guy whose specialty is stunts and martial arts; there really aren't a lot of the high-impact punching-and-kicking sequences he's known for. Or, at least, they get swallowed up by the visual effects, which makes for some pretty impressive bits, especially in the finale, when things go full (digital) Harryhausen with demons fighting skeletons.

The cliffhanger to this one doesn't necessarily imply another massive gap, although the word is that Cheang intends to switch things up again for the finale. Maybe that one will finally get it right, because this one is pretty close - good-looking, fun in spurts, seldom many really bad moments. Chinese filmmakers return to Sun Wukong and "Journey to the West" a lot because there is great material there for all ages, and something that plays as well as this looks could wind up excellent.

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originally posted: 02/07/16 16:31:06
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  04-Feb-2016 (M)

Directed by
  Pou-Soi Cheang

Written by
  Ping Ran
  Wen Ning

  Aaron Kwok
  Li Gong
  Shaofeng Feng
  Fei Xiang

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