Three hundred years ago celestial forces destroyed Mount Huaguo, home of the Monkey King: Sun Wu Kong (Eddie Peng) in order to root out the evil that supposedly resides there and within him. In revenge Wu Kong undergoes centuries of training and enters the Heavenly Kingdom as a student of philosophy and kung fu. There he meets the feisty and beautiful Azi (Ni Ni), daughter of heaven's ruler Tianzun (Faye Yu), along with her devoted childhood friend Erlang (Shawn Yue) who, as devotees of this legend know, is destined to become Monkey's mortal enemy. Reckless and defiant, Wu Kong breaks rules and picks fights, putting him at odds with Erlang and Tianzun's right-hand man, Tian Peng (Oho Ou). Following a particularly raucous confrontation, Wu Kong, Azi, Erlang and Tian Peng fall from heaven onto the cursed wasteland of Huaguo. Bereft of their magical powers, the four reluctantly band together to defend Huaguo's last surviving human villagers from dark forces that terrorize the mountain.
Honestly, you wait ages for a Monkey King movie then four come along at once. Thus far the dual success at the Asian box-office of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2012) and The Monkey King (2014) has wrought sequels to both and prompted genre expert Jeff Lau to deliver the belated A Chinese Odyssey: Part Three (2016). Now we have Wu Kong, written and directed by Journey's co-director Derek Kwok. Does the world really need yet another slick, mega-budget Monkey King epic? Well, it turns out yes we do, especially when they are this good. For once the film does not look to the traditional source material: Wu Cheng-En's sixteenth century novel 'Journey to the West.' Instead this adapts a popular web novel by Jin Hezai that delivers a different, much more humane take on the oft-told tale.
In some ways Wu Kong is the Casino Royale (2006) of Monkey King films, delivering a somewhat earthier take on an iconic hero, taking him back to his roots and humanizing him by way of a tragic love story and deeper psychological motivation. Derek Kwok delivers what some may perceive as a darker, grittier take on Sun Wu Kong but crucially also understands you cannot make a po-faced Monkey King film. Happily Wu Kong exhibits all the manic energy, whimsical imagination, stirring romance and plain dingbat eccentricity (e.g. Eddie Peng's scowling bad boy Sun Wu Kong makes his big entrance while ejecting a stream of molten hot earwax (!) onto the floor) only with a more nuanced approach to characterization. It is a sumptuous production. The painterly visuals woven by D.P. Jason Kwan are influenced as much by graphic novels and computer games as traditional opera. Yet remarkably Wu Kong is not an effects-driven film. Kwok's breakthrough film was the quirky and heartfelt kung fu comedy Gallants (2010). Adopting a similarly character-led approach, mixing comedy, tragedy and philosophy, Kwok humanizes these heavenly deities with relatable earthly foibles and flaws.
Aspects of the production do seem geared towards teenage girls and anime fans. The film presents Wu Kong and Erlang as brooding bishonen pretty boys, exposing taut torsos and rippling six packs at any given opportunity. However the core rivalry between the two is less well developed than the love story between Wu Kong and Azi. Eddie Peng delivers arguably the most charismatic Monkey King since Stephen Chow Sing-Chi: handsome, impassioned and for the most part decidedly non-simian. He is matched beat for beat by Ni Ni who infuses her similarly swaggering, take-charge heroine with a disarmingly soulful sweetness. Their ongoing flirtation is well played and often charming.
The plot hinges on the question of whether or not fate is predestined. Wu Kong is motivated to join the heavenly kingdom solely because he wants to gain power to control his own destiny and inspire others to do so. By comparison the more disciplined Erlang seemingly adheres to the rigid doctrine espoused by Tianzun, for whom free will is a dangerous illusion. This is especially evident in the film's second act wherein Wu Kong and friends rally the remnants of humanity to work together and save their own lives. Which prompts heaven's authority to perform a despicable act for the sake of a philosophical point. Thereafter the film mounts a radical re-thinking of Wu Kong's legendary crime, more traditionally presented as being motivated by arrogance and power lust. Here the Monkey King is drawn as a Prometheus-like tragic hero whose well-intentioned defiance of heaven's law inspires a smitten Azi, and others, to take a moral stand. Music by Kwok's Gallants co-lead: legendary Cantopop star turned actor-director-soundtrack composer Teddy Robin Kwan.