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Monkey King, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A big enough false start that one wonders how it got even a recast sequel."
2 stars

I'm not sure whether Monkey King Sun Wukong has been more ubiquitous as an on-screen character in recent years or if it's just a matter of more Chinese films coming to international audiences' attention and the guy suddenly seeming to show up every six months. That seems more likely, because one would think this film being a DC-movie type disaster (not well-liked but making too much at the box office to be considered a failure) would otherwise put the kibosh on not just Cheang Pou-soi's planned trilogy but other planned takes on the story; instead, everybody else kept going while Cheang found a way to make <I>The Monkey King 2</I> but basically start from scratch. It's certainly not hard to see why the filmmakers more or less discarded everything about this movie before making its two sequels; this version of "The Monkey King" just does not work and even though some of its most visible elements aren't really the problem, you kind of need to show that you're making changes rather than doing it quietly.

This one starts out well before the "Havoc in Heaven" part of the Monkey King mythology, with a war between deities and demons that the former eventually wins, with the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat) casting would-be usurper the Buffalo Demon King (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) down into a fiery hellscape. Heaven has been so damaged, though, that goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) changes herself to crystal in order to pull it back together, with one fragment falling to Earth and birthing a powerful demigod with the form of the monkeys in the area. Seeing the potential for both virtue and vice in this Monkey King (Donnie Yen Ji-dan), the sage Master Puti (Hai Yitian) takes him on as a pupil, naming him "Sun Wukong". Still alternately egotistical and naive, Wukong is able to be convinced by the Buffalo Demon King to demand his place in Heaven, which would give disaffected guardian Erlangshen (Peter Ho Yun-tung) a chance to lower the defenses and let the demons attack again.

The star would be the most visible change when the sequel came out, but it's worth mentioning that Donnie Yen doesn't really make a bad Sun Wukong here. He's buried under a ton of prosthetics, but he nails the childish combination of innocence and petulance that the Havoc In Heaven phase of this character needs, and his emoting through all the latex and fur sells the film's last act. He doesn't really get a chance to show off his martial arts prowess as well as one would hope, despite being both star and action director - the movie is so larger-than-life and full of CGI and wire work that it's tough to see choreography in the fights - but his physicality works for the character. It's not hard to justify switching him out for Aaron Kwok in later movies, since Kwok's Buffalo Demon King is the best thing inn this one, projecting self-assurance and righteousness as he tricks Wukong and recites his grievances even while still maintaining the sneer that makes him clearly the film's villain.

(It ultimately worked out for the best; Kwok played a more mature, hardened Wukong well in #2, and maybe if Yen is making Monkey King movies, he doesn't do Rogue One, and who'd want that?)

A bigger problem casting-wise is that Chow Yun-fat just falls flat as the Jade Emperor, crippling the larger story. Perhaps it's because he just needs people to react to; all of his scenes have him swimming in special effects and that's never really been his forte. It does not help that he is not given much to work with; the Jade Emperor is a passive character, even more than much of the rest, and there's a certain amount of aggravation in how these deities seem to pointedly stand back and let Wukong and the Buffalo Demon screw everything up, and it's brought into sharper relief by how Chow projects an interesting air in a scene where the Emperor and Wukong sit and talk in a scene among rubble. There's a difference between serenity and detachment, and the former is far more interesting.

Another issue is that the sheer amount of effects seems to be more than this production can handle. Even for something that seems aimed in large part at kids, it often looks kind of unfinished, like the enormous amount of digital effects could use one more pass for detail, or a little more time figuring out the physics of how gravity works with everyone flying around islands floating in the sky. Some of the big scenes look like programmatically-animated and 3D-converted concept art rather than something lived in. Fortunately, the filmmakers do save done of the best effects work and action for the finale, and I must admit, I can't really dislike a movie that offers up Sun Wu-King-Kong.

It's a mess of a movie, but one just good enough to make the potential of a Monkey King movie with this level of special effects and use of 3D. It did leave the sequels a bit to build on, and you can certainly see why Cheang would hold onto this rather than waiting for someone else to do better. It's a shame that the second movie in the series wasn't much better; hopefully the third time will be the charm with a second sequel coming out for 2018's Chinese New Year.

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originally posted: 02/06/18 12:02:23
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  DVD: 22-Mar-2016


  30-Jan-2014 (M)

Directed by
  Pou-Soi Cheang

Written by
  Kam-Yuen Szeto
  Edmond Wong

  Donnie Yen
  Yun-Fat Chow
  Aaron Kwok
  Yitian Hai
  Peter Ho

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