Monk Comes Down The Mountain (Dao shi xia shan)

China (2015) Dir. Chen Kaige

The title of this martial arts fantasy comedy from esteemed director Chen Kaige – known for highbrow fare such as Farewell My Concubine – sounds like the opening line of a joke (“A man walks into a pub…”), but it does in fact tell us roughly what this film is about.

Our eponymous monk is He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang), an orphan brought up in a Taoist monastery where due to a food shortage, the Abbot (Li Xuejian) arranges a fighting competition that Anxia wins with ease. His prize is in fact to be sent out into the “regular” world of 1930’s Republic of China having proven he can take care of himself.

Based on the popular novel by Xu Haofeng, who might be familiar as the co-writer of Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, this 3D martial arts extravaganza boasts a number of top names from Chinese and Hong Kong cinema as well as a second co-production foray into Chinese cinema for Columbia Pictures, following 2014’s Gone With The Bullets.

Having not read Xu Haofeng’s original novel, one infers from the jaunty narrative of this film that random chapters have been picked for adaptation rather than following the plot with any sense of cohesion or respect for chronology. If this isn’t the case then the adapted script by Chen and Zhang Ting would have benefitted from some prudent revision before shooting.

It essentially splits into three parts – the first is wildly comedic and recalls Stephen Chow (Chow collaborator Ku Huen Chiu is action choreographer); the second, a good vs. evil fight over a sacred kung fu technique; and finally a modern corruption tale. The comic tone all but dissipates by the time the second stage arrives, replaced by a more serious mood that paves the way for the rushed climax that is both spectacular and stupid – or spectacularly stupid.  

Anxia first meets kindly pharmacist Cui (Fan Wei) who takes him in and gives him work at his store, where Anxia’s athletic skills provide great amusement and distraction for the patients. Surprisingly, the tubby middle aged Cui has a younger, sultry wife  Yuzhen (Li Chiling) who is having an affair with Cui’s effete younger brother Daorong (Vanness Wu). The secret lovers plan to kill Cui for his money but Anxia discovers this too late to help.

Shortly after this scenario, Anxia meets Zhao Xinchuan (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan), a martial artists he witnesses fighting his master Peng Qianwu (Yuen Wah), the elder man prevailing. Peng’s son Qizi, (Jaycee Chan) then pays Anxia a visit and feeds him drugged food to help him get an instructional manual for the legendary Ape Strike technique from another martial arts master Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok).

However Anxia learns that Peng and Qizi are not the noble people he thought they were and that Zhou is being victimised because he was chosen to be heir to the martial arts school by Peng’s father over Peng. Anxia volunteers to study under Zhou, but when things get out of control leading to a tragic fatality, Anxia is forced to track down a Peking opera star Boss Zha (Chang Chen) to help get revenge.

The basic story is really no different from your typical Shaw Brothers outing, suffused with a touch of Taoist doctrine to keep the protagonists grounded in their actions whilst the antagonists go to the extremes to fulfil their egos. Curiously, the 1930’s setting provides both a visual and philosophical conflict between Anxia and his Monk lifestyle and the developing world of the city.

Anxia and Zhou both look like something from Ancient China whilst the urbanites are dressed in bright colours and are driving cars. There is a hastily inserted corruption angle thrust into the last act featuring a rotund police chief (Lam Suet) that exemplifies the modernity aspect and begets the spectacularly stupid moment mentioned earlier.

With so much going on, there is a case for this to be a split adaptation across two films, to allow key plot developments to breathe and grow at a steady pace. The episodic jump from one scenario to another harms both the tempo and the tone of the film, whilst backstories are either rushed or ignored completely.

Part of this might be down to this international release being Weinsteined – cut from 123 minutes to 109 minutes to (apparently) suit gormless US audiences – suggesting salient points of reference may have been excised in the name of expedience. The film isn’t impossible to follow just the far too hasty in its delivery and execution.

For a film based around martial arts the fight scenes are somewhat hampered by the 3D gimmick (China is one of the few territories this is a success in), leading to mostly aerial fights in which someone can fly thirty feet across the room from one punch. This excessive use of wire work along with dodgy CGI evokes a cartoony sensation to the otherwise competently choreographed clashes.

It seems almost rude to have a legend like Yuen Wah conform to this overly showy nonsense but he makes for a dastardly enough villain as Peng and shows he still has he moves in the few ground based fights. Wang Baoqiang is a talented fighter himself but again his skills are hidden behind Anxia’s comic persona and gravity defying acrobatics.

Some might have noticed that Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) is not credited in this film, due to the real life drugs scandal he was embroiled in at the time of its release. Ironic then that his character Qizi goes on a drug trip and is often seen sniffing and wiping his nose whilst acting manically. Coincidence?

Despite having all the right ingredients Monk Comes Down The Mountain suffers from too many cooks making what they think a wu xia film should be like. It’s earnest popcorn escapism, confused by too much plot, excessive CGI effects and a legendary director who clearly isn’t cut out for mainstream cinema.