Soil Cheang’s 2014 fantasy The Monkey King adapted the early chapters of Journey to the West, depicting an out-of-control Sun Wukong being tricked by the villainous Bull Demon King to rampage through heaven. As punishment, Wukong was trapped underneath a mountain for 500 years. The Monkey King 2 picks up five centuries later, as Wukong is rescued by, and then forced to escort, the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang all the way to India to collect the Buddhist scriptures.
So, in terms familiar to those who grew up watching Monkey in the UK, Australia and Canada, the first film was an origin story and this second film is the start of the famous bit. It does not take long from Sanzang to meet Wukong, and they in turn soon encounter the pig demon Zhu Bajie (Xiaoshenyang) and the sand demon Sha Wujing (Him Law). From there it is simply a matter of loosely adapting a few chapters of the original novel.
Journey to the West is perfectly suited to a fantasy movie franchise, as once Sanzang’s pilgrimage begins the novel adopts a relatively episodic structure with the four travellers encountering a regular stream of spirits, demons and supernatural beings. Taking one encounter as the basis for each film, The Monkey King saga could run and run. A third film is already in production for a 2018 release. In this instance the film adapts Sanzang’s encounter with Baigujing (Gong Li), the so-called ‘white bone demon’ who desires to murder Sanzang and eat his flesh.
That is obviously a much darker premise for a fantasy film than the more playful one adopted for the original film. This is overall a much more serious and dramatic picture. While flashes of the overt slapstick comedy remain – and are rather welcome when they appear – this is the sort of light horror fantasy that made Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean such a success. The film also employs a much more grounded visual aesthetic. Gone are the bright cartoon-like environments and fantasy creatures, and in their place come willowing ghosts, demons that look like snakes and bats, and an entire army of animated skeletons. There is a much more extensive use of physical sets and prosthetic make-up, and this gives each scene a weight and a reality that was often missing the first time around.
This more serious take is also reflected in Wukong himself. With Donnie Yen failing to return, the role has rather oddly fallen to his former co-star Aaron Kwok who played the villain in the last film. He adopts his new role with great skill, maintaining the mannerisms and humour established by Yen but inserting a whole new level of gravitas. There is an edge to this Wukong; I think it might be my favourite portrayal so far.
Feng Shaofeng gives Sanzang a very calm and noble demeanour, which contrasts well with the more ridiculous and comedic portrayals of Bajie and Wujing. Even in the novel they were relatively underdeveloped characters, and that does not change here. Altogether they make a hugely entertaining ensemble.
Gong Li is exceptional as Baigujing. She is seductive, deceitful, and at the same time weirdly vulnerable and sad. She brings out the very best in Feng’s performance as Sanzang too, as he doggedly insists she can be redeemed despite her murderous crimes, and he in turn allows Gong to show off a multi-faceted, internally conflicted villain.
The jump in quality between The Monkey King and its sequel is striking. This film looks better, plays better, and is paced better. It swaps out incoherent mythic hijinks for atmospheric dark fantasy. The performances are more measured and the dialogue much stronger. This is not simply a great Journey to the West film: it is a fantastic Chinese fantasy in its own right.