The Monkey King (Xi you ji: Da nao tian gong)

China/Hong Kong (2014) Dir. Pou-Soi Cheang

In a mythical version of Ancient China a clash between the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) and the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) results in the Bull Demon being banished to the Fire Mountains along with the Jade Emperor’s sister Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), who professes her love for the Bull Demon, an act forbidden between deities and demons. The Goddess Nüwa (Zhang Zilin) sacrifices herself to repair the Celestial Kingdom with her crystals, leaving behind a crystal egg in the Huaguo Mountains.

From this hatches a monkey named Sun Wukong (Donnie Yen), a creature of both vice and virtue, to be trained in the skills of martial arts and transformations by Master Puti (Hai Yitian). When the Bull Demon decides to launch a second attack on the Celestial Kingdom, he formulates a devious plan to manipulate Sun Wukong into aiding him.

Many countries have their own literary classics or fables they like to revisit, often ad nauseam, as inspiration for film or TV and for the Chinese it’s the legendary Journey To The West fables, which have spawned countless adaptations, even in neighbouring Japan (the manga and anime Dragonball and the 70’s TV show Monkey are the most famous).

In 2013 Stephen Chow gave us his version of the origins of this story in a big budget affair hot on the heels of which is this even bigger budgeted 3D extravaganza (which was actually first in production in 2010). Both tell the story of how the Monkey King came to be and his imprisonment by Buddha, but take very different routes. While Chow’s version was a spectacle but was more character driven this version – due to the 3D – favours the visuals over the story and character development.

It opens with the spectacular fight between the Jade Emperor and the Bull Demon, the sacrifice of Nüwa and Son’s birth, before leaping forward in time to an adult Sun declaring himself King of the Huaguo mountains because of his superior fighting skills and certainly not his maturity or common sense.

To help equip himself and his monkey subjects Sun pays a visit to the undersea Dragon King (Liu Hua) to borrow some weapons but his exuberant antics create a huge tidal wave which not only destroys the Dragon King’s realm but also a devastating tsunami which ruins many other land kingdoms.

The Dragon King makes a complaint to the Celestial Kingdom where Sun is summoned, meeting the gate keeper Yang Jian (Peter Ho), who is secretly in league with the Bull Demon. When the Jade Emperor sees that his dragon horses trust Sun, he appoints him head of the stables but Yang Jian finds a way to corrupt the situation to ensure Sun is seen to be a troublemaker for the Celestial Kingdom, playing into the plan the Bull Demon is hatching for his next attack.

It’s an unquestionably fairly straightforward story but what complicates matters for the audience is how much of the narrative and exposition is rushed or buried beneath lashing of extraneous scenes of CGI based distraction to remind us where the bulk of the production budget has been allotted.

With much of the imagery shot in soft focus with the charters possessing heavenly auras, the identities can get lost in the during the group scenes or more significantly during the hectic flurry of motion of the fight scenes. This also applies to the fantasy sets which are obviously shot against green screen, lacking as they do depth and tangibility (at least in the 2D version), despite being immaculately rendered.

It has to be said that the animal make-up, at least the monkeys, is very convincing, successfully obscuring all the actors, especially Donnie Yen who is totally unrecognisable here, while others – the Bull Demon is basically a chap with horns – look less impressive. Worse still some of the non- CGI deliberately anthropomorphic creatures are literally actors in rubber masks that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Power Rangers! The CGI turtle man in the underwater kingdom is pretty cool though!

Sadly one never gets a decent grip of the characters or their motive thus development is a non-issue here. Sun should be the exception but he really just bounces from one situation to the next with the crisis point appearing with thirty-five minutes left in the film’s run time (which has THIRTEEN minutes of end credits).

Thus we have a malevolent antagonist who is just bad for the sake of being bad, nor any explanation why a deity should fall for him; there is no sufficient reason to care for Nüwa’s sacrifice; Yang Jian’s betrayal of the Celestial Kingdom has no backstory to speak of; and the romance between Sun and the Fox Girl Ruxue (Xia Zitong) is either developed or makes any sort of emotional impact on the audience or the story.

The fight scenes, choreographed by Yen, are sufficient but not spectacular due to the overuses of wires and the dread CGI flying effects. Had this been pre-CGI and just pure mono e mono combat this could have been great. However Yen delivers arguably his more versatile performance as Sun, in both his studied physical movements as a primate and his comic facial expressions, something he is noted for never having before. Perhaps he has finally found his niche! However for the film feels like it is too unworthy of the top flight cast involved, most notably Chow Yun Fat.

For the hardened film fan The Monkey King is perfect fodder for picking holes in it and sticking the knife in with lofty damning opinions. For sheer bloody minded, visually exciting and brainless escapist fantasy fun however this does the job. You can stick this on for the kids and keep them quiet for 110 minutes (sans end credits). They might not be able follow the plot too well but the imagery and energetic rush of excitement will more than compensate.