Aaron Kwok again transforms into the mischievous Sun Wukong for the third instalment of Soi Cheang’s blockbuster holiday franchise. This time, however, the focus is not on Wukong himself, but falls on monk Xuanzang (Feng Shaofeng), when their journey westwards leads them into a mysterious kingdom populated solely by women. Largely foregoing action in favour of romance, The Monkey King 3 nevertheless manages to be frivilously entertaining and should see solid returns over the Lunar New Year break.
Clearly influenced by Patti Jenkins’ hugely successful Wonder Woman, the hidden realm of Womanland bears a striking resemblance to Princess Diana’s own home island of Themyscira. Concealed behind an invisible wall and ruled over by a benevolent young Queen (Zhao Liying), men are banished and romance is unknown, while the female guards dress in all-too-familiar red, blue and gold attire.
Problems arise when Xuanzang and his companions Wukong, Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and Wujing (Him Law) stumble upon this clandestine city, and the Queen immediately falls in love at first sight with the chaste monk. Gigi Leung’s Royal Preceptor orders the strangers be executed, but the Queen intervenes, only to discover that the kingdom’s gates can only be opened by true love - a currency that does not exist here.
The Monkey King 3 follows a familiar formula, in as much as it sees its mismatched heroes out of their element once again, and forced to wrestle with otherworldy powers before they can continue on their spiritual journey. But this new adventure is mercifully sparing when it comes to effects-heavy set-pieces, instead exploring gender roles and relationships, albeit to a somewhat less than enlightened conclusion.
The Preceptor reveals that men were banished from the Womanland because of their fickle and disloyal nature, deemed more likely to get a girl pregnant and leave her in the lurch than foster a loving family environment. When the travellers suddenly find themselves "with child" following a dip in the River of Motherhood, Wukong perceives this as a trap to keep them there. The only member of the group not to fall foul of this mishap, he seeks out a “miscarriage” potion, which he administers to his cohorts - shockingly without their prior consent.
While the film eagerly adopts some of the stylistic traits from DC’s successful feminist blockbuster, it is more reluctant to gift its heroines the same level of agency. They have survived without men for at least the last 20 years, but it is a fragile model that shatters the moment men arrive. At first, the Queen expresses her desire for Xuanzang rule by her side, but when he refuses - after all, the monk has a higher calling and a love to be shared amongst all living things - she offers to renounce her throne and join him on the road. Surprisingly, this too is rejected. Her role is to respect a man’s commitment to his vocation and remain dutifully at home. She finds strength in her compassion and understanding, rather than in questing alongside the guys.
It should be acknowledged that the film arrives on our screens the same week as Marvel’s Black Panther, which also features a society in self-imposed isolation, that learns to open its borders and share its wisdom with the world. Is The Monkey King 3 attempting to make a similar statement about Hong Kong’s current situation? Does the film promote unification or is it asking that smaller communities be recognised and respected without needing to be homogenised? Or, like with its feminist musings, does the film ultimately fall short of any genuinely progressive thought?
What can be confirmed is that The Monkey King 3 delivers enough broad humour, striking visuals, casual spirituality and larger-than-life action to succeed as a Chinese New Year crowdpleaser. The travellers each find female partners with whom to flirt and tussle, they fend off oversized scorpions, clash with a spurned River God (Lin Chiling) and ultimately save the city from a giant flood. It may be a step down from the surprisingly effective first sequel, but this is by no means the travesty of that Donnie Yen debacle that started this all.
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