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January 15, 2017

The Monkey King 2


Xi you ji zhi: Sun Wukong san da Baidu Jing
Cheang Pou-soi - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

For those who are more casual observers of Chinese cinema, this is not to be confused with the Stephen Chow-Derek Kwok series titled Journey to the West. Cheang's three part series is based on the same story of the Monkey King, something that has proven not to be an obstacle for the home audience, with both series doing quite well at the box office. What may be somewhat baffling is that Cheang's second film has a different Monkey King, with Aaron Kwok replacing Donnie Yen, who starred as the title character a couple years back.

Kwok is burlier and hairier, but like Yen, not quickly recognizable with all that make-up. Sammo Hung has stepped in for action choreography, replacing Yen's martial arts and athleticism with Kwok standing his ground with a golden staff. Even though Cheang's films were intended as a trilogy, one could pretty much enjoy this second entry without seeing the first, dispensing with the distraction of a change of stars, plus the added confusion of Kwok starring as the evil demon in that earlier film.

The journey is from China to India, with the Monkey King, imprisoned for causing havoc in Heaven, accidentally freed from under a mountain, and directed to accompany a young monk who is to retrieve some Buddhist scriptures. For the Monkey King, it is a challenge to keep his impulsiveness under control, especially the urge to kill his enemies. While the first film emphasized the playfulness of the Monkey King, this second film is more philosophically serious, which is to say, there is just enough gravitas amidst the elaborate make-up, costumes and special effects.

The best special effect here is Gong Li. Maybe there was a bit of digital work done here in addition to the occasional furry eye brows that appear from time to time, but as the White Bone Demon, Gong Li is totally gorgeous. If she needs to drink to stay young looking, or eat the flesh of a devout monk to remain an immortal demon, she's got my sympathy.

The adaptation of the story is loose enough to allow for Kwok to have a sword fight with White Bone Demon's army of skeletons. And while special effects have come quite a ways from Jason and the Argonauts, the obvious inspiration here, the scene also unintentionally, for those who've seen both films, show why computer generated special effects aren't so special for some of us. The older, hand-crafted stop-motion animation of the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts represents the challenge of imagination against the limitations of the technology available at the time, allowing the viewer to actively collaborate with the filmmakers in the suspension of disbelief. Computer generated special effects essentially emphasize the passivity of the viewer.

While Cheang Pou-soi may be enjoying some rewards with bigger budget films with battles in the heavens, I hope it's not too long before he returns to more earthbound stories. While there is some thematic similarity with stories of violent, antagonistic loners who unexpectedly find redemption, Cheang's best work is to be found in the streets of Accident and Dog Eat Dog.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 15, 2017 08:09 AM