There have been few films from China as big or as hotly anticipated as “The Monkey King”, a new version of the much-loved and oft-filmed tale, starring some of the biggest names in the industry in Donnie Yen, Chow Yun Fat and Aaron Kwok, backed by a glittering supporting cast including the likes of Peter Ho, Kelly Chen, Gigi Leung, Joe Chen and others. Directed by Soi Cheang (“Motorway”), the film also enjoyed a massive RMB$500 million budget, and despite a lengthy production process and lukewarm reviews from the critics, was a gigantic smash hit at the local box office during its Lunar New Year release.
The film is set long before the events of “Journey to the West”, and begins with Buffalo Demon King (Aaron Kwok) attacking the heavenly kingdom with his hordes before being defeated by Jade Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and banished to Flaming Mountain with his love Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen). To heal the kingdom, Goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) transforms herself into crystals, one of which falls down to the mortal world, and gives birth to the Monkey King (Donnie Yen), who grows up to lead his people in their peaceful mountain home. One day, the Buddhist Master Puti (Hai Yitian) drops by, and deciding that Monkey King is divine, takes him back to Mountain Mi to tutor him in Taoism and the ways of righteousness, calling him Sun Wukong. Though good at heart, Wukong is proud and mischievous, and the Buffalo Demon King hatches a plan to turn him against Jade Emperor and to reignite his war with the heavens.
The most important thing by far to be aware of when approaching “The Monkey King” is that it’s every inch the family friendly commercial popcorn blockbuster, and is almost certainly not the film that Donnie Yen or Soi Cheang devotees will be expecting. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, of course, and it’s a pretty interesting take on the “Journey to the West” material and the character of the Monkey King, Soi making him more innocent and less of a villain than in the original text, with Buffalo Demon King taking over full-on evil duties in his place. At the same time, there’s a genuine effort to develop his character through the film, giving him a semi-redemptive arc and a love interest in the form of fox maiden Ruxue (Xia Zitong), and this helps to ensure a certain level of emotional involvement. Yen really gives his all in the title role, and his Monkey King is a likeable and more sympathetic figure than usual, making the film fun and less complicated in a perfectly serviceable manner. The cast are all solid, with Aaron Kwok glowering effectively, Chow Yun Fat doing his by now perfected noble emperor thing, and the big name supporting cast all doing their bit – the line-up of talent on screen really is genuinely impressive.
The giant budget and special effects are arguably as big a draw as the cast, and Soi certainly goes out to assault the viewer with a non-stop avalanche of spectacular set pieces and money shots, all in eye-popping 3D. With much of the film clearly having been shot green screen, there’s a huge amount of CGI (partly worked on by the “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings” teams), and this proves both a strength and a weakness – while it does allow Soi to really let rip with his imagination, the computer work does vary quite wildly in quality, from the jaw-dropping through to the bizarrely shabby. With practical makeup and frankly weird animal costumes being thrown in for good measure, it’s a bit of an odd mix, though for younger viewers or those in the right frame of mind this should really only add to the enjoyment. Inevitably, there isn’t much in the way of actual martial arts, most of the large scale action scenes having a slapstick air, and though Yen has a few chances to show off his trademark lightning fast fists, his performance is mainly focused on acrobatics, with lots of leaping around in suitably monkey-like fashion.
Ultimately, it’s easy enough to see why “The Monkey King” might not have gone down too well with critics and some fans, as it certainly could be seen as a missed opportunity to make a truly definitive or gritty film about the title character, which this certainly isn’t. However, as a family friendly piece of eye candy there’s a lot to be said for what Soi Cheang has achieved here, and its box office receipts suggest that it definitely struck a chord with local audiences. It’s hard not to be impressed by the level of star power in front of and behind the camera, not to mention the grandiose visuals and effects, and despite its flaws, the film is the very definition of event cinema and a couple of hours of fantasy fun.
Pou-Soi Cheang (director) / Kam-Yuen Szeto, Edmond Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Sun Wukong / Monkey King
Yun-Fat Chow … Jade Emperor
Aaron Kwok … Bull Demon King
Yitian Hai … Master Puti
Peter Ho … Erlangshen
Joe Chen … Princess Iron Fan
Xia Zitong … Ruxue