Written in the 16th century by scholarly hermit Wu Cheng-En, Journey to the West is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature while its principal protagonist, the irrepressible Monkey King Sun Wu Kong remains a unique icon across Asia. Combining the theological significance of, say, a Hindu deity like Krishna, the pulp heroism of Superman and the childlike appeal of Mickey Mouse, he straddles the worlds of religion and both high and pop culture like no other character. He has been a staple of Asian cinema practically since its inception. From silent movies to the much-loved Shaw Brothers musical The Monkey Goes West (1964), that spawned three sequels, Osamu Tezuka's pioneering anime Alakazam the Great (1960), a supporting role in Chang Cheh's bizarre chopsocky favourite The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975), television infamy in cult Japanese serial Monkey! (1979), hugely popular philosophical fantasy romance A Chinese Odyssey (1995) wherein Chinese critics lauded comedy superstar Stephen Chow Sing-Chi as the definitive Sun Wu Kong, and Jeff Lau's follow-up, the insane sci-fi genre mash-up A Chinese Tall Story (2005). Not to mention uniting Jet Li and Jackie Chan on screen in the Disney production The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and inspiring Akira Toriyama's epic anime Dragonball (1986) which became an Asian phenomenon in its own right.
Even with this impressive legacy, Chinese film fans were astounded when two competing, mega-budget Monkey King movies went into production, both boasting state-of-the-art digital effects and a galaxy of big name stars. Stephen Chow came first out of the gate and his revisionist comedy epic Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2012) broke box office records, prompting fears that the equally ambitious The Monkey King would be found wanting. An unlikely choice of director in Soi Pou Cheang, better known for his gritty and nihilistic crime dramas and horror movies - though he was also behind goofy teen horror-comedy The Death Curse (2003), a star not known to emote let alone let rip with the sort of manic playfulness one expects of the Monkey King, production delays, extensive re-shoots to accommodate the artistry of the imported Hollywood effects wizards behind The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and Avatar (2009) and some high-profile stars abandoning ship, all compounded the sense that this was a disaster in the making. Happily the end result is an eye-popping spectacle full of whimsy and wonder, a Monkey King movie laced with pathos, poetry and philosophical wit that packed theatres across Asia. But first the story...
In a refreshing change, rather than re-stage Sun Wu Kong's familiar journey to the west alongside Tripitaka, Pigsy et al for the umpteenth time, Cheang and screenwriters Edmund Wong, of Ip Man (2008), and Lola Huo Xin, of Kung Fu Hustle (2004), go back to the earliest chapters of Wu Cheng-En's sprawling novel more commonly dispensed with in a pre-credits prologue. At the dawn of creation a great war rages in the heavens until the mighty Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) casts down the demon hordes into exile on Flame Mountain. With the Celestial Kingdom in ruins, the beautiful Goddess Nu Wa (Zhang Zi-Lin) makes the supreme sacrifice transforming herself into crystals that heal the universe. One such crystal falls down to the mortal world and gives birth to the Monkey King (Donnie Yen) who grows up to lead his people atop their peaceful mountain home. When Buddhist Master Puti (Hai Yitian) pays a visit he realizes Monkey is a divine being. So he brings him to his temple on Mount Mi to tutor him in the ways of righteousness. The newly-rechristened Sun Wu Kong soon surpasses his fellow students mastering magic, kung fu and the seventy-two transformations. Though good at heart, he remains proud and mischievous. Rejoining his monkey tribe, he provides a safe haven for fellow animal beings including his childhood sweetheart, flirty fox spirit Ru Xue (Xia Zi-Tong) but his naive quest to amass an arsenal of super-weapons then find the cure for death itself, sees him cruelly manipulated by the vengeful Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) and traitorous celestial guard Three-Eyed Prince Er Lang-Shen (Peter Ho) with apocalyptic consequences.
Opening with a mind-blowing, near wordless first twenty minutes detailing Ni Wa's restoration of heaven and the psychedelic birth of Sun Wu Kong that tips its hat to both 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and vintage Walt Disney cartoons, The Monkey King flings the viewer into a swirling, kaleidoscopic universe that allows us to share each step of the super-simian's emotional journey and experience the tenets of Taoism first hand. It brings to mind a famous quote from Tsui Hark - who himself tried and failed to mount a big-budget Monkey King movie with animatronic creatures from Jim Henson - that we go to the cinema not to think but to feel. Which is not to suggest movies should be bereft of ideas but rather convey such ideas with passion and heart. Early into the film Princess Iron Fan ponders whether deities and demons can get along. The unfolding narrative sets out to reconcile the bestial and divine aspects of human nature embodied in Sun Wu Kong. For while Monkey is an irrepressible mischief-maker, he also exhibits more compassion for the plight of lowly animal beings than is shown by the hoity-toity gods and goddesses, with the exception of the kindly Jade Emperor with a suitably god-like Chow Yun-Fat exuding mega-wattage movie star charisma. Midway through the plot Monkey briefly becomes an official in heaven but balks at the bureaucracy and pointless cruelty among the elite. This culminates in an act of rebellion where he frees the captive flying horses from the celestial stables. Reflecting the anarchic though conflicted spirit of the character, the filmmakers use Sun Wu Kong's intellectual journey to satirize the concept of a privileged class which likely appealed to the local audience even as it surely rankled some party members.
Speaking as someone who has in the past been less than charitable about Donnie Yen's acting abilities, one feels compelled to retract that harsh criticism. Unrecognizable under monkey makeup, Yen delivers a career best performance. His Sun Wu Kong is an exuberant, engaging, multifaceted tragi-comic hero, torn between a yearning for enlightenment and a yen for mischief. Monkey is a transgressive hero. He asks awkward questions and sniffs out hypocrisy. Eventually he is pushed too far by his adversaries and retaliates excessively until all his good intentions come crashing down dooming everyone he loves. The film presents him as naive but well-meaning while his charming relationship with fox spirit Ru Xue yields surprisingly moving moments. Yes, in this movie the heart comes from a star-crossed love between a monkey and little white fox which is nowhere as absurd as it sounds. In fact it's downright charming.
Some bemoaned the family friendly tone, citing this as a missed opportunity to present a harsher, grittier take on the titular hero but are "harsh" and "gritty" really concepts that apply to a prankster super-monkey? The fact is Cheang and his screenwriters consistently raise the metaphysical and philosophical aspects of this story in a playful and whimsical manner that is firmly in the tradition of Chinese fantasy rather than ape the bleak chic of say, Game of Thrones. Others took issue with the admittedly inconsistent special effects though again these reflect the Asian film-making tradition with an emphasis on aesthetically pleasing visuals drawn from classic scroll paintings not photo-realism. Personally, I enjoyed the mix of outlandish CGI monsters with more traditional puppets, practical effects and wacky animal costumes. The costumes and ape make-up in particular are delightfully expressive and full of personality. Keep an eye out for Cantopop kitten and actress Faye Wong, of Chungking Express (1994) fame, among the orange ape mob. She gets to utter a deceptively innocuous one-liner that comes to haunt Sun Wu Kong in his quest for greatness.
On a visual level The Monkey King is undeniably spectacular: grandiose heavenly vistas in a rainbow of colours, flying palaces that soar the skies like spaceships in Star Wars (1977), enormous cloud-surfing dragons, energy-blasting deities and demon hordes. Each minute of screen time yields some new wonder or appearance from some beloved mythological character including Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), Na Cha the Great (Calvin Cheng), and the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chan), each of whom appeared in movies of their own but were never as vivid as they are here. Fans of lovable Disney-esque animal beings (my favourite is the owl in the top hat) and giant rampaging monsters are well catered for with a climactic cloud battle between a King Kong-sized super-simian, a dragon-morphed Chow Yun-Fat sure to delight fans of Japanese kaiju classics. It ends in time-honoured tradition with the cosmic arrival of the all-knowing Buddha and our hero humbled... until a certain monk happens along. Yes, there is a sequel in the works but they have their work cut out trying to top this.