The Monkey King Sun Wukong is big business, and nowhere has he been bigger in recent years than in Chean Pou-soi’s trilogy of lush, Hollywood-style Monkey King films. This third episode was released back in 2018, and followed the hugely successful Monkey King 2 in 2016. Not that audiences have been starved of Monkey adventures in-between; since Aaron Kwok last occupied the role of China’s most famous action hero in 2016, audiences had the opportunity to follow Monkey’s adventures in Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong, Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back and obliquely through Wang Baoqiang’s Buddies in India – and that’s before one considers the ABC/Netflix The Legend of Monkey television series. The Chinese film and television industries in particular can never get enough out of adapting Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, which fictionalises the travels of real-life Buddhist monk Xuanzang by giving him three fantastical guardians: Sun Wukong, the pig demon Zhu Bajie, and the river monster Sha Wujing. Or, as most Australian viewers of 1980s television will know them: Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy.
So many viewing options, but it is Cheang’s films that are my favourite. He has taken a smart and commercially savvy approach: 2014’s The Monkey King undertook a rare big screen adaptation of the novel’s early chapters, giving Monkey an origin story and establishing his fall from heaven. From there, Cheang is simply adapting the novel one episodic chapter at a time. The Monkey King 2 saw Xuanzang and his companions confront the deadly White Bone Demon. This second sequel takes them to the Womanland of West Liang. That leaves about 80 more chapters left to be adapted should the oft-rumoured fourth film go ahead.
That seems very likely. The Monkey King 3 is a richly designed and detailed fantasy. While the CGI effects may strain a little from time to time – the film was made on less than half the budget of a Hollywood tentpole – the story and the characters are appealing and enormously entertaining. For this latest adventure Cheang takes a more light-hearted and comedic approach than the darker textures of the last film, but as the story progresses he unveils deeper undercurrents and more resonant emotional beats. He also attempts something quite remarkable in terms of Journey to the West adaptations: he gives Xuanzang a romance.
It sounds like a foolish idea, since Xuanzang is a seemingly incorruptible Buddhist monk that has sworn a vow of chastity and who is dedicated on a mission to travel to India and bring back a set of Buddhist scriptures. Feng Shaofeng plays Xuanzang with the exact sort of serene dedication that the character demands, and yet he also finds room for him to fall in love with the idealistic empress of Womanland (Zhao Liying). It gives texture to the character, and allows the film’s screenplay to accentuate his virtues by specifically putting them to the test. It’s a hell of a tightrope to walk, but Cheang and screenwriter Wen Ning pull it off wonderfully.
That leaves the bulk of the humour to Xuanzang’s three guardians. Aaron Kwok, Xiaoshenyang and Him Law all return from The Monkey King 2, and each gets their own specific moments to take the spotlight and develop some laughs. Kwok’s Monkey remains superb. He took the role over from Donnie Yen for the first sequel and feels particularly at home the second time around. His monkey-like gestures and tics were adopted from Yen’s performance, but Kwok brings a lovely dark streak to the character. Personally, I think his is the best portrayal of the character ever.
The film does occasionally wobble a little – there is a hugely ill-advised magical male pregnancy sequence that feels more awkward than funny – but any such drawbacks are soon forgotten by the end. Forget badly dubbed Japanese TV shows or whatever the ABC and Netflix serve up: this film series is the real deal.