On an epic journey seeking sacred Buddhist sutras, pious monk Tang Seng (Kris Wu) has his hands full coping with three unruly animal disciples. Girl-chasing Pigsy (Yang Yiwei), foul-tempered fish monster Sandy (Mengke Bateer) and especially mischief-making super-simian Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Lin Gengxin) land him in one fine mess after another. That is when they are not busy trying to save Tang from various ravenous demons intent on eating his flesh, including a sect of seductive spider-women. When the travellers reach the capital city of the Biqiu kingdom, Sun Wukong's antisocial antics wind up offending the childish King (Bao Bei'er). Things take a turn for the even worse after the King's suspiciously feminine-looking minister (Yao Chen) asks them to add another pilgrim to the group whose presence dredges some bad memories for poor, long-suffering Tang.
Back in the early Nineties visionary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark tried to get Francis Ford Coppola to back a proposed Monkey King movie with creature effects by Jim Henson. Now, more than two decades later, Hark finally delivers his take on the enduring Chinese legend albeit via a sequel to Stephen Chow Sing-Chi's record-grossing Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013). On top of that the film arrives hot on the heels of sequels to two other big-budget Monkey King franchises: The Monkey King II (2016) and A Chinese Odyssey - Part Three (2016). This did not seem to bother the Chinese audience given Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back now ranks as the highest-grossing film of Tsui Hark's career despite more than a few observers noting its artistic merit pales besides Chow's groundbreaking original.
With Chow on board as writer and producer the surreal, anime-influenced style of slapstick comedy here bears the unmistakable stamp of the Cantonese comic genius even though Hark's direction is heavy-handed, often labouring for the obvious gag. Which is strange given past works have proven him an inspired comedy director in his own right: e.g. All the Wrong Clues... For the Right Solution (1981), Working Class (1985), The Chinese Feast (1995) and more recently All About Women (2008). Whereas Chow's Journey to the West was near-Spielbergian in terms of how meticulously he crafted its set-pieces, Hark goes for his endearingly familiar hyper-kinetic pacing, bombarding viewers with a dozen crazy ideas a minute. Lush production values fuse Disney with Bollywood for a unique take on Chinese mythology with eye-popping computer graphics although, as with a few recent Monkey movies, the make-up effects are sub-par. As Chow did in the original film Hark plays the monster sequences for genuine skin-crawling horror. If the meandering narrative takes too long to settle on a definitive direction the set-pieces remain more eye-catching, exciting and creative than in many recent Hollywood blockbusters. From the creepy spider-women sequence influenced by imagery found in the anime Wicked City (1987) (which Hark adapted as a live-action movie in 1994), Monkey's video-game style sky-battle with the clockwork toy redesigned Red Boy to the epic climactic kaiju stand-off between the gigantic rock-skinned super-simian and a golden Buddha.
Once the pilgrims reluctantly adopt a new travelling companion in the fetching form of courtesan Felicity, played by Lin Yun, star of Stephen Chow's record-grossing (this happens a lot with him) The Mermaid (2016), the movie finally gains much-needed momentum and thematic weight. Hark finally comes into his own interweaving his trademark complex layers of emotional, philosophical and psychological angst. Felicity's beauty stirs memories in Tang of his lost love Miss Duan (Shu Qi in a too-brief though still heart-rending cameo) who of course - SPOILER WARNING! - met her end at the hands of a then-villainous Sun Wukong. Unlike the first film Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back reverts back to tradition by focusing on an ideological conflict between the pious monk and mischievous Monkey. However Hark darkens the relationship pitting the gentle, well-meaning if ever-so-slightly hypocritical Tang against a scowling bad boy Sun Wukong who seethes with anger and resentment, humiliates his master at every turn and seemingly wants to get him killed. Interestingly for a film sourced from a text extolling traditionally Buddhist values, the script's moral message is Christian: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Former boy band member Kris Wu brings a charming wide-eyed naivety to the role of Tang. Meanwhile Lin Gengxin's hunky, swaggering bishonen reinterpretation of the Monkey King takes some getting used to at first but proves by turns ingratiating, terrifying and highly charismatic. The plot contrives to set Monkey down the dark path once again before an abrupt twist sets the stage for a crowd-pleasing special effects climax that while aptly mind-blowing proves too cavalier in resolving some complex themes.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.