After a failed demonic attack on Heaven, the rebuilding process inadvertently creates a supernaturally powerful monkey. After growing up to become the powerful but mischievous Monkey King (Donnie Yen), he finds himself manipulated by the vengeful Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) to challenge heaven and the authority of the benevolent Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat).
Produced at enormous expense with an all-star Chinese cast, The Monkey King was a monumental commercial hit upon release. A sequel followed in 2016, with a third instalment currently in production for 2018. Like many popular Chinese films it dives into Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel Journey to the West for inspiration, and takes an early section of that book for its over-arching plot. For Australian viewers Journey to the West seems best known via the 1978 Japanese television series Saiyuki, which was dubbed into English by the BBC as Monkey. Anybody looking forward to appearances by Tripitaka, Sandy and Pigsy, however, will be disappointed: this film relates the early life and exploits of the Monkey King before he is forced to accompany a Buddhist priest on a pilgrimage to India. Instead this is a film focused upon gods, demons and animal spirits, with nary a human being to be seen.
This causes an engagement problem, because the film is ultimately so outlandish and abstract that it is difficult to care that much about what happens to its characters. Characters talk in lifespans of centuries, and present magical powers that appear – at least within the context of the film – to be limitless. There is precious little with which to grapple to give the film a proper dramatic context.
To an overwhelming degree The Monkey King is also a victim of the same curse that seems to afflict every 21st century Chinese fantasy film: an over-reliance on computer-generated visual effects. CGI is everywhere in The Monkey King, from animal characters to backgrounds and all magical phenomena, lightning strikes and sparks in between. It gives the entire production a weightless, artificial feel; one that does not feel internally consistent. That interferes with the film’s ability to engage its audience – or, at least, with this viewer in particular – and leaves the entire exercise feeling somewhat vacuous and ordinary. It particularly hurts the film’s climax, which does sadly degenerate into two large digital effects punching one another.
This is all a bit surprising when one examines the earlier films of its director, Hong Kong filmmaker Soi Cheang. This is far and away his highest-profile film, having previous directed the likes of urban horror (Horror Headline… Big Head Monster), small-scale thrillers (Accident) and contemporary action-drama (Motorway). To an extent he seems drowned by the technology of The Monkey King. I wonder if perhaps he was not the best fit, director-wise, for such an outlandish and fantastical project.
The film does boast some entertaining performances, even if the actors do struggle somewhat with their virtual surrounds. Donnie Yen brings an infectious sense of fun to the Monkey King himself, Sun Wukong, playing the role with a lot of broad monkey-like mannerisms and tics. To an extent it feels like he is performing as a live-action cartoon, but within that overall context he brings quite a bit of texture and depth. In some of the film’s comparatively rare serious moments he manages to make that cartoonish character still work. Chow Yun-Fat plays the Jade Emperor with dignity and gravitas, making the most out of what is by its very nature a rather limited role. Aaron Kwok, by contrast, comes across as a little bored. Visually he is pitch-perfect as the handsome, brooding Bull Demon King, but that really is all he does: brood, glare into the middle distance, and occasionally scowl. It is the sort of stoic performance that reminds one of his turn in the Storm Riders movies.
As a colourful all-ages fantasy The Monkey King acquits itself to a degree, but there are better and stronger takes on the novel and its characters to be found elsewhere. Expensive visual effects can only take a film so far – particularly if they struggle to match the unrealistic ambitions of a relatively weak screenplay.