Five hundred years after wreaking havoc in heaven Sun Wu Kong (Aaron Kwok) the Monkey King lies imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. Tasked by the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chan) to retrieve the sacred scriptures, gentle, merciful and moralistic monk Xuanzang (William Feng) sets the Monkey free so he may protect him on his perilous journey. To ensure the naughty super-simian does not misbehave Xuanzang adorns his head with a golden ring. When the monk recites a special prayer Monkey suffers a ghastly headache. Along their journey the feuding pilgrims pick up three more mythological monsters seeking redemption: a dragon transformed into a talking horse, porcine skirt-chaser Pigsy (Xiao Shen-Yang) and blue-skinned Sandy (Him Lo Lun-Kim). After narrowly escaping some seductive she-demons the gang reach the magnificent Cloud Kingdom. Xuanzang is horrified when the King (Kris Phillips) reveals the city's children have been abducted by evil spirits. He begs the travelers to help rid them of the White Bone Spirit (Gong Li). However, Lady White makes the first move by offering Monkey his freedom if he will let her eat Xuanzang's flesh.
With original star Donnie Yen busy making Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), award-winning actor and Cantopop star Aaron Kwok dons the orange monkey suit for the sequel to one of the highest-grossing Hong Kong-Chinese films of all time. Kwok of course played chief antagonist the Bull King in the first film but the change is not jarring at all. He proves as adept as his predecessor at capturing the unique combination of childlike glee, badass heroism and moral complexity that makes Sun Wu Kong so appealing. Nonetheless the real casting coup here is Gong Li, the Asian Meryl Streep. The veteran art-house actress outshines her co-stars with a nuanced turn as the slinky, scheming, seductive but scary villainess. Lady White is a wronged woman who lost faith in humanity and lashes out at all living things. The question of how to deal with her provides the central moral dilemma of The Monkey King II.
The plot drives a wedge between the steadfast Buddhist piety of Xuanzang and the more bestial impulse of Sun Wu Kong to smite any evildoer he meets. More than one character points out the hapless monk would have died long ago were it not for Monkey's monster-slaying abilities. Yet if Xuanzang's religious ideals blind him to the presence of evil, the film shows it is just as true Monkey's 'fiery eyes' constrict his vision too. Instead of souls to be saved he sees only enemies to be fought, which is not the Buddhist way. While the film acknowledges Xuanzang's relentless piety makes him more than a little annoying, his sincerity comes through in a genuinely affecting climax where he goes to extreme lengths to redeem someone who rejects his spiritual beliefs.
Darker than the first film, though not without humour, the sequel was better received critically but feels smaller in scale. Gone is the cockeyed combination of furry romance (there is no mention of Sun Wu Kong's late girlfriend, fox spirit Ru Xue), Disney-esque whimsy, trippy philosophizing and cosmic wonder that made the original so unique. Soi Pou Cheang speeds through the traditional encounters with Pigsy, Sandy etc. to get the gang on their way to battle Lady White but thereafter treads familiar ground. On a visual level Monkey King II is as spectacular as its predecessor and provides the newly-revitalized Hong Kong film industry another chance to flex its muscles with eye-popping CGI effects and lavish fantastical sets though the animal makeup, Pigsy's in particular, is more basic than before. Painterly images of dragons, gods and animal beings masterfully evoke traditional Chinese scroll paintings while the climax brings on a rip-roaring homage to Jason and the Argonauts (1963) as the heroes take on an army of skeletons that morph into one giant skeletal warrior!
Story-wise the film is not any more progressive than the old Shaw Brothers musical The Monkey Goes West (1964). In a throwback to traditional Monkey King yarns the film's equation of female sexuality with evil proves problematic. The lack of any positive female characters (even a little girl turns out to be a knife-wielding assassin!) proves all the more glaring given acclaimed auteurs like Jeff Lau and Stephen Chow Sing-Chi built their Monkey King stories around complex, strong-willed, challenging heroines: Athena Chu as Cinderella in A Chinese Odyssey (1995) and Shu Qi as Duan in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2012). If its pulse-pounding monster battles you are after, the film delivers in spades. Still one imagines Tsui Hark's forthcoming Monkey King film will add more substance. Oddly, Monkey King II concludes with a post-credits gag with Aaron Kwok and Xiao Shen-Yang in character advertising the Chinese national lottery. Please don't get any ideas, Marvel.