Forced to leave the monastery cheerful young kung fu monk He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang) wanders the secular world of 1930s China trying to stay true to his values. A chance encounter leads to an apprenticeship with kindly doctor Cui Daoning (Fan Wei). However a tragic turn of events wrought by Cui's beautiful wife (Lin Chi Ling) and heartless brother (Vanness Wu) draws out the dark side in Anxia. Seeking redemption Anxia first seeks guidance from stern Buddhist monk Rusong (Wang Xue-Qi), gets embroiled in the sinister machinations of a scheming drunken master (Yuen Wah) and his cowardly son (Jaycee Chan) then eventually apprentices himself to mystical martial arts masters Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok) and Boss Zha (Chang Chen). Each step along the journey opens Anxia's eyes to the realization only through experiencing good and evil can one truly understand the way of the Buddha.
Many found Monk Comes Down the Mountain a surprise change of pace for Chen Kaige compared to his many searing, politically-charged dramas including the acclaimed Farewell My Concubine (1993). Some went so far as to slate the film as insubstantial for an auteur of his stature though just as many found it his most engaging effort in years. Opening as a fish out of water kung fu comedy the film often features the kind of slapstick fu sequences one would normally expect from an early effort from Jackie Chan (whose son Jaycee excels here in an atypically ambiguous role) or Stephen Chow Sing-Chi. However the crazy picaresque plot, adapted from a novel by writer and filmmaker Xu Haofeng, repeatedly wrong-foots the audience, takes darker turns then gradually pieces together a Buddhist fable contrasting martial arts idealism with human reality. The core idea is that each step along a journey through human foibles grants He Anxia greater understanding of the earthly world. His time with Daoning opens his eyes to lust and betrayal. Later a dalliance with a beautiful young woman leads Anxia to experience sex and temptation. Zhou Xiyu teaches him virtue while through Boss Zha he finally gains a greater understanding of life, the universe and everything.
Or at least that is the idea. The problem is that although Wang Baoqiang is a charming, smiley-faced lead capable at handling the film's frequent tonal shifts back and forth from comedy to drama, none of these varied incidents seem to have much effect on his character. In particular an especially stark shift early on when Anxia straight up murders someone has surprisingly little impact on events beyond fleeting residual guilt. It is as if at the end of each mini story arc the filmmakers press the reset button returning Anxia to the cheerfully naïve simpleton he was at the beginning. Which led more than one critic to liken him to a kung fu Forrest Gump (1994). While genuinely unpredictable the parable-like narrative paints in broad strokes. It celebrates fraternal loyalty above all virtues, adopts an uncomfortable distrust of women and adheres to homespun traditional values in a faintly starchy way. At the same time Monk Comes Down the Mountain is genuinely unpredictable. Chen livens things up with the odd eccentric flourish, including a bizarre scene where two drug-addled characters wind up with mutating faces, and pulls off a host of cool mystical martial arts set-pieces. Predictably, the preponderance of wire-work irked more than a few martial arts purists but most will happily savour the crowd-pleasing fantasy spectacle.
Chen aims for the trippy spirituality of classics like A Touch of Zen (1969), lacing the film with Buddhist philosophy and transcendent images of nature, the elements and outer space including a remarkable Disney-like computer animated sequence where a monkey contemplates the universe. It is vaguely reminiscent of scenes from The Monkey King (2013). At times Monk Comes Down the Mountain achieves a certain cosmic contemplative stature as challenging and mesmerizing as Terence Malick's opus The Tree of Life (2013) or at the very least Luc Besson's sporadic musings in Lucy (2014). Yet bereft of a strong emotional thread to draw us through the varied shifts in tone it struggles to surmise its themes as succinctly as the more minimalist South Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003). Even so the film is consistently engaging with strong performances across the board. It is great to see veteran Yuen Wah can still pull of mustache-twirling villainy well into his golden years.