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Monkey King 3, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Less Monkey King, best entry."
3 stars

Sometimes, the third time apparently is the charm - despite a pair of less-than-impressive predecessors, director Cheang Pou-soi's third "Monkey King" film winds up being pretty darn decent. It's been a heck of a troubled path to get there, as the producers basically scrapped everything and started over at one point, and there have been at least two better takes on the same material while this series of movies has been a going concern, but on its own, this particular flick isn't a bad way to spend a couple hours if your local theater has booked it for Chinese New Year.

It picks up roughly where the previous film left off, with Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) serving monk Tang Sanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) as he journeys to the west to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures, along with pig demon Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and water buffalo demon Sha Wujing (Him Law). Their route takes them down a waterway whose local river god has been wrecking shifts, and they are saved when a hand from the heavens sends them through a portal to the Womanland of Western Liang. Tang and the young Queen (Zanilla Zhao Liying) are immediately smitten, but men are outlawed in Womanland, and the royal Perceptor (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) is determined to make sure the death sentence is carried out, especially since there's a prophecy that this party heralds doom.

The irony is that it works in large part because Sun Wukong is pretty close to being a side character here, right up until a finale where they face a protean adversary that just can't be hit with a stick, which is pretty much Wukong's go-to move. Instead, the story focuses on the monk and the queen, forcing both to decide between personal attachment and greater responsibilities. It's a wobbly plot arguably built on what many may consider a false premise of there not being room in people's lives for both (indeed, many people need both), but it gives Feng good material to work with while his demon pals are mostly comic relief, and the series could arguably use an entry like that - adventure movies made from The Journey to the West often focus on the exciting monsters and wind up playing Tang as a naive fool who needs Wukong to bail him out, undercutting that the point is for the arrogant demigod to learn from the humble human. Presenting the group with a situation where even the villains are motivated and somewhat sympathetic, and that must be solved spiritually, even as it causes Tang to question himself, is a good move even if it does mean there's less action.

They still have fun, of course, and just because Tang gets to have a real story doesn't mean there isn't also a lot of slapstick built around him being kind of a goof, with the whole crew getting in on the silliness. The cast has a fun chemistry, and Zhao Liying is a great addition to the group coming back from the second one, seemingly overwhelmed by this whole concept of romance but also clever and able to still feel like a queen even as she's on the receiving end of slapstick. There's a bunch of goofy comedy, and the well-staged action manages to take cues from both the slapstick and the more dramatic elements of the film.

It's a bit of a shame that Well Go doesn't arm to be giving this a 3D release in America; it's clearly rendered and shot with the third dimension in mind, and some of the scenes which are built to be majestic while not a lot is happening could use it. There's not a whole lot of action compared to the previous entries - they're not finding reasons for Wukong to get into fights - but the creature effects are nice and the effects are well-used. There are some fairly severe missteps at a couple points (the "Spring of Miscarriage" is just terrible from any angle and it's probably no coincidence that a couple folks walked out at that point), and too often hinges on the literal Hand of Buddha, but Cheang seems to have a fairly well-focused story and has a better grasp on the scale of the fantasy and effects than he did with the first.

There will probably be more Monkey King movies soon enough (whether in this series or others), and this one probably works best as a change of pace rather than a default direction. But for something I was initially going to out of a sense of inertia, this Chinese New Year release is a very pleasant surprise.

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originally posted: 02/18/18 10:55:54
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Directed by
  Pou-Soi Cheang

Written by
  Ning Wen

  Aaron Kwok
  William Feng
  Zanilia Zhao
  Shenyang Xiao
  Him Law
  Tao Liu

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