The Monkey King 3 (Xi you ji zhi nü er guo)

China/Hong Kong (2018) Dir. Cheang Pou-soi

No doubt the bean counters at Filmko Entertainment were giddy with excitement when the first Monkey King film in 2014 became such a huge box office hit and were doubly orgasmic when its 2016 sequel yielded even bigger takings. So, we naturally come to a third instalment in this now proven franchise because those gold plated backscratchers won’t buy themselves!

The Journey to the West continues for the eclectic group of travellers – monk Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok), wild boar spirit Zhu Bajie (Xiaoshenyang) and water buffalo spirit Sha Wujing (Him Law). Still in search of fabled scriptures the group are making their on water when an unpleasant water demon upends their boat, sending the flying into a hostile land.

It’s a hostile land by being populated entirely by women, raised to believe that all men are evil, thus forbidden to enter the imaginatively named Womanland! However, Tang Sangzang locked eyes with a cute young woman during his freefall into Womanland, who turns out to be the queen (Zhao Liying) and is mutually smitten with the monk, but the Royal Preceptor (Gigi Leung) insists the men should be executed.  

Director Cheang Pou-soi is back in the chair for this third instalment of this series along with the main cast of the second film, but sadly didn’t bring writer Ran Ping with him, instead handing scripting duties to Wen Ning who seems keen on repeating the mistakes of the first film that Ping fixed in the second. Aside from being 20 minutes too long, the juggling of subplots results in a confused narrative.

Basing its central plot on the Kingdom of Maidens from Wu Cheng’en’s epic novel with a dash of Wonder Woman thrown in to keep things contemporary, there is a clear romantic bent to this story with only a hint of feminism. Womanland is no Themiscyra in that the inhabitants are ball-breaking Amazons with daily routines of beating each other up but they are handy in a fight, each one skilled in the weaponry of their choice.

With a strict “No Men” policy you are probably wondering how reproduction occurs in Womanland with 50% of the equipment used in the mating process unavailable. The answer is simple – they take a drink from the Spring of Motherhood! It’s a fantasy, so this isn’t beyond the stretch of imagination, and it ties in with one of the key subplots along with providing Womanland with its misandrous mythology.

Not that Tang is looking for love as a devout Buddhist monk but the queen is a cutie and love is indiscriminate in how and when it strikes. So now we have a problem in that this chaste couple are falling for each other but are morally duty bound not to encourage this, but can’t help themselves. The Preceptor is a joyless old hag with Vulcan eyebrows and the power to overrule the Queen, but it’s all right as she is only doing it for her.

The Queen is the more proactive of the two, with her handmaidens also a little curious about the male interlopers – regardless of their subspecies – and sets about foiling their execution. It almost works too except they end up in the Spring of Motherhood and Tang, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing end up pregnant! Instead of an amusing discussion about the biological impracticalities of this, Wukong is sent to the unpleasantly named Miscarriage Cave to get a potion to end the pregnancies.

Here is where the script shows a bit of thoughtfulness and topicality, halting the comedy whilst it ponders the value of a life in a veiled dig at China’s one child policy. The creepy cave owner explains how he lights a candle for every child aborted while Tang has to consider what is greater – his Buddhist duties or the living being inside him? This is as serious as its gets and the resolve won’t please everyone, but the message appears to be practicality and duty before pleasure.

From hereafter the comedy is sidelined and we enter into a period of sobering, romantic melodrama that furthers the themes of love and duty. The icy mien of the Preceptor is thawed by way of an explanation related to Womanland’s mythos, prompting the final act arrival of the Water Goddess (Lin Chi-ling), the most dangerous victim of spurned affections.

Any feminist credentials this film could have had evaporate when Wukong is called upon to defeat the rampaging villain and save the day – in other words, the independent strong willed women need a man to fight their battle after all. Had it been a joint effort, it wouldn’t be so pitiable after spending so much time putting the women on an even keel with the male cast.

Since China is one of the few territories still in love with 3D, the visual effects in this film are variable when viewed in 2D. Some of them are very impressive, notably the majestic fantasy inspired Womanland backgrounds, whilst creatures like the Queen’s white deer or the giant scorpions suffer from moments of looking unnatural. The sentient parchment is funny though.

The cast attack their role with typical Asian aplomb, staying on the right side of hamming it up to fit their characters, having already established them in the previous film. Zhao Liying is adorable, making the doomed romance feel tragic just with her round face and expressive wide eyes. Gigi Leung is dressed as a Disney villain but she proves her veteran value with an emotionally conflicted twist to her character later on.

Reverting back to the calamity of the first film instead of building on the improvements of the second, Monkey King 3 begins with tremendous promise but peters out too quickly by trying too hard to make its parts more than its sum. It’s part-fun, part-well meaning drama, but combined, a bit of a slog. Maybe the fourth film to put things right again?