On a mission to slay demons and do good, zany but dedicated mystical monk Butong (Zheng Kai) clashes with tomboyish demon hunter Jing-Jing (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), unaware they were star-crossed lovers in a previous life. Centuries ago the pair were banished from heaven for their forbidden romance. And have since been reincarnated countless times without ever recognizing each other. Joined by an old friend himself reincarnated as a kindly monk-cum-were-tiger (Law Kar-Ying), the two team up to eliminate giant rampaging demons. However the return of an old enemy from Butong's past throws the mortal world into unprecedented danger.
From Hong Kong comedy hit-maker in the Eighties to reigning schlockmeister of the Nineties to blockbusting mega-producer through the Noughties, good old Wong Jing just keeps plugging away. Here, flush with cash following the From Vegas to Macau franchise, his lavish and lucrative reboot of the God of Gamblers series with Chow Yun-Fat, Wong re-teams with protégé Billy Chung for a wacky, effects laden fantasy epic. Based on the same Chinese folk tale that inspired The Mad Monk (1993), The Golden Monk sees likable mainland actor Zheng Kai step into the role previously played by comedy legend, and former Wong Jing collaborator, Stephen Chow Sing-Chi. Yet while the plot hits a few beats familiar from the earlier film, true to form Wong Jing also fashions this into a shameless rip-off of Chow's record-grossing mythological romp Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2012). From the opening set-piece with Butong struggling to subdue a giant fish demon rampaging through town, to the tragicomic romance between dorky monk and swaggering tomboy, to the spectacular CGI monster mash finale, Wong proudly proffers a string of second-hand goods.
With manic performances and rapid-fire gags unlikely to translate for a non-Chinese audience The Golden Monk would be a chore to watch were it not for a handful of positives. On the one hand Wong Jing clearly spared no expense. Lavish digital effects sit comfortably besides beautiful costumes and stunning sets, drenched fittingly in lush golden hues. It is pacy and laden with spectacle. Including a parade of Ray Harryhausen-style creature battles sure to delight monster fans (including a malevolent cyclops and striking red versus golden dragon made of a thousand monks at the climax). However Wong's attempt to ape the heartfelt romance Stephen Chow himself modeled on the films of his mentor Jeff Lau falters due to a lack of sincerity, skill and shameless padding. At one point the plot stops dead just so characters can watch a sort of 'instant replay' of past events.
Lead actor Zheng Kai is an energetic comic presence enlivening some otherwise sluggish scenes. Unfortunately his chemistry with co-star Kitty Zhang Yuqi just isn't there. The latter, another transplant from Stephen Chow's stock company, first featured in his sci-fi family comedy CJ7 (2008), is especially disappointing. Strangely listless in a role obviously modeled on Shu Qi's far more nuanced and fiery heroine in Journey to the West. More fun is comedian Evonne Hsieh Yi-Lin who dons mustache and dreadlocks for a cameo as male hero Dugu Wubai. That is before she is dispatched in inexplicably grisly fashion. Rather like the similarly incongruous moment when a trio of pneumatic vixens-cum-bestial-she-demons feast on screaming captive kids it is symptomatic of a schizophrenic tone Wong pulled off better decades prior. The more successful jokes include a montage depicting the leads' various reincarnations through time that include parodies of famous folk tales like Butterfly Lovers and Mulan, and a sequence where Butong and Wubai inexplicably morph into various Marvel superheroes. Look out also for a groan-inducing reference to the Angry Birds game and presumably animated movie. Nevertheless neither the film's romance nor attempts to deal with the spiritual and philosophical themes central to The Mad Monk and Journey to the West gel with Wong's relentlessly lowbrow approach.