The Monkey King 2 (Xi You Ji Zhi Sun Wukong San Da Baigujing)

Hong Kong /China (2016) Dir. Pou-Soi Cheang

If we have learned anything from the modern movie business model it is that no matter how bad a film is, if it scores big at the box office a sequel is inevitable. This applies to The Monkey King, the 2014 fantasy outing based on the legendary novel Journey to the West, which starred Donnie Yen; it may have been a visual treat but the script was an incoherent mess.

Pou-Soi Cheang, who directed the first film, has been given a chance to redeem himself, with a largely new cast, improved special effects and thankfully a more focused story at his disposal. It seems Chinese/Hong Kong filmgoers thought he did as Monkey King 2 only just bested the box office takings of its predecessor, but is it a better film?

The story adapted here is Three Attacks On The White Bone Demon which takes place 500 years after the events of the first film. A young Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) is sent to free the trapped Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok) from the Five Fingers Mountain. Then, at the order of the Goddess Guan Yin (Kelly Chen), the pair are sent to locate ancient spiritual sutras that will restore order in the world.

Along the way they add two more travelling companions, wild boar spirit Zhu Bajie (Xiaoshenyang) and water buffalo spirit Sha Wujing (Him Law). Arriving at Silk Road rumours persist that White Bone Spirit, Baigujing (Gong Li), abducts young children and feeds off them to retain her youth. Three days away from her reincarnation, Baigujing decides to absorb the pure hearted Tang Sanzang and gain immortality.

Yes you read that right – somehow Cheang managed to persuade the mercurial Gong Li to appear is this film (although I’m sure the HK$40 million she got paid was the clincher), which more than compensates for not getting Donnie Yen and Chow Yun Fat to return or the reported signing of Louis Koo. Despite all the CGI and fantasy visuals it is a gorgeous 50-year-old woman that is the star attraction.

Also helping is the fact that the screenplay had just one writer, Ran Ping, compared to the four writers the first film had which served only to complicate things. Ping’s singular focus on the script pays dividends almost straight away, allowing the viewer to follow the story even coming into this without seeing the first film, although naturally that helps. A quick recap of prior events opens the film so all bases are covered on that respect.

One interesting nuance of the plot is that it isn’t just a fantastical road movie of sorts as a moral twist has been added to the Wukong/Sanzang relationship. In order to keep the Monkey King on a leash so to speak, Guan Yin affixed a headband to his head which can be controlled by a mantra delivered by the monk – any stepping out line and Wukong can be temporarily tamed.

This manifests itself with the introduction of Baigujing and her sultry servants, the pig spirit (Miya Muqi), the bat spirit (Xi’er Qi) and the snake spirit (Lu Wei). Wukong posses the fire eyes which allow him to see the truth in everything, so if an evil spirit is masquerading as a human, he’ll spot it. However no-one else can see this so when Wukong attacks Baigujing disguised as an old lady, Sanzang immediately steps in and punishes Wukong.

Elsewhere another interesting facet of the plot set to derail the linear nature of the journey and test the moral fortitude of Sanzang when the group arrive at the Cloud Kingdom. The King (Fei Xiang) is a weakened, effete man who is distraught at the rampant child abduction in his kingdom, believing it to be the work of Baigujing. He asks Sanzang to take care of Baigujing but the King may not be totally on the level.

For an Asian popcorn flick this is relatively standard fare all told but there is a lot more going on than just CGI demons and pious deities punctuated by the odd martial arts style fight, choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung. The script is a smooth blend of drama, comedy, some Buddhist philosophy and escapist fantasy action held together by energetic and dynamic performances from the cast.

Because the film was originally shot in 3D – still big drawing gimmick in China – the effects sometimes lose something in the transition to 2D, the CGI boar and the obvious green screen backgrounds stand out most in this respect. One scene sure to incur an SFX preference debate is the homage to the Ray Harryhausen classic Jason & The Argonauts in which our heroes battle an army of skeletons!

Aaron Kwok receives something of a promotion, going from playing the Bull Demon King in the first film to taking the title role here. Kwok is far more comfortable than Yen under the make-up yet has a serious side to him which also shines through. The fighting skills are not comparable to yen’s hence that aspect reduced here, but Kwok is still competent with a staff.

But this is Gong Li’s film whose star power, poise and presence lifts this above its popcorn status. She vamps it up big time as Baigujing while pulls off her elderly woman disguise with subtle aplomb. Whether bathed in ethereal white or clad in demonic black Li’s radiance is a visual effect in its own right and her performance prevents Baigujing from being a one-dimensional villain.

It should be rather obvious by now that Pou-Soi Cheang has managed to wash away the miasma left by the first Monkey King film, addressing all of the faults that dragged it down. By no means a classic film but the huge improvements – and Gong Li – certainly elevate its status and enjoyment factor tenfold.

Simply put Monkey King 2 is everything the first film should have been.