Soi Cheang's The Monkey King finally arrives in time for the Chinese New Year holiday, but despite a spirited central performance from an unrecognisable Donnie Yen, the film proves a chaotic maelstrom of make-up and computer-generated imagery that struggles to find its focus.
Banished to Fire Mountain for decimating the Heavenly Palace, the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) plots his revenge against the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). Meanwhile, born from one of Princess Nuwa's crystal tears, the monkey spirit Sun Wukong (Donnie Yen) grows into an inquisitive, mischievous character. After studying under Master Puti (Tian Hai Yi), Wukong returns to his mountain where he proclaims himself Monkey King. However, his troublesome temperament soon sees him causing havoc across all three realms, and Bull Demon King formulates a plan to use Wukong as a weapon against the deities.
First announced back in 2010, Soi Cheang's big screen adaptation of the classic story of The Monkey King finally arrives nearly four years later. Cheang's film can be perceived as the origin story of its titular character, coming before Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which itself detailed the origins of monk Xuanzang before the two characters team up for their famous adventure. Here we see how Wukong was created and trained, before his destructive antics see him imprisoned for 500 years under Five Finger Mountain.
Filmed in front of green screens and heavily reliant on computer generated imagery throughout, Cheang's vision is epic in scope and populated by a menagerie of fantastical entities. While the script sets up rivalries between various deities and demons, and a number of potential romances, much of the film hangs on spectacular duels between all-powerful adversaries. The results, when presented (as they were shot) in 3D, are both kaleidoscopic and abrasive to the senses. Sadly, much of the CGI appears to be unfinished, as the quality of the rendering varies wildly from shot to shot. For a film so dependent on the spectacle of its imagery, this proves a serious stumbling block.
The creature design also proves unintentionally humorous, as almost every demon or spirit is accompanied by an entourage of anthropomorphic animals. Everything from bears and pandas to hamsters and even crabs populate the background, and look better suited to a community stage show than a cinematic extravaganza. Likewise, the performances are either restrained or borderline catatonic, as characters scowl and pose more often than actually challenge themselves physically. Chow Yun Fat is called upon to do little more than act stately, which of course he does effortlessly, while Aaron Kwok gets into a scuffle or two, but mostly just looks sullen and cross. Only Peter Ho's Erlangshen seems willing to get stuck in and keep pace with the film's high-energy hero.
Donnie Yen must be applauded, as he goes all out as Wukong in a performance the likes of which we have never seen from him before. He hoots and cackles as he scampers through forests and leaps from misty mountain-top to crumbling crenellation. To say he goes "full-monkey" would be to understate his dedication to the role, but that is not to say his Wukong is wholly successful. When he gets the opportunity to fight - which is only occasionally - then he looks as nubile and dextrous as ever, with his staff fighting skills proving particularly impressive, but Wukong himself is a somewhat irritating character who can be difficult to sympathise with.
While the subject matter of Wu Cheng'en's literary classic is an enthralling tale of adventure and heroism, the script for The Monkey King by Szeto Kam Yuen and Edmond Wong is incredibly weak, with numerous conversations and exchanges of dialogue going absolutely nowhere. A burgeoning romance between Wukong and Xia Zitong's Fox Spirit is rendered awkward and unintentionally amusing by the dialogue, while Aaron Kwok's Bull Demon King is persistently badgered by his pregnant wife, Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen). Elsewhere, characters such as Princess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) and Guanyin The Godess of Mercy (Kelly Chen) are relegated to little more than walk-ons.
The Monkey King should not be written off entirely as in the moments when the effects and the performances come together the result has a pretty spectacular impact. Unfortunately these moments are sprinkled sparingly across an unrelenting two-hour bombardment of sub-par material played incredibly loud and presented in cranium-penetrating 3D. Had Cheang and his team been given the time they needed to get every shot up to the same level of quality, The Monkey King experience would have been greatly improved. However, the importance of opening during the Chinese New Year window cannot be understated, and after close to four years of hard work, time clearly had to be called.
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