Stars: Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, Feng Shaofeng, Kelly Chen, Xiao Shenyang and Him Law.
Writers: Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi
Director: Pou-Soi Cheang
The Lunar New Year festivities heralding in The Year of The Monkey will assuredly include celestial box office takings for the epic and emotional fantasy adventure, The Monkey King 2.
Featuring Aaron Kwok in a vibrant, vivid rendition of the legendary simian deity, Sun Wukong, and an giddy parade of artfully rendered special effects showpieces, Pou-Soi Cheang’s sequel to his 2014 blockbuster proves an infinitely more engaging and impressive mounting of key elements from Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel, Journey to The West. The narrative troughs and visual overkill of the first film are nowhere to be found in the sequel; leaner and more focussed, the central characters take on greater emotional resonance and the artists crafting wondrous visions of this fantasy landscape come into their own.
Despite the title, most central to the plot is young monk Xuanzang (William Feng), an idealistic traveller who, whilst fleeing a tiger attack, finds himself deep within the Five Elements Mountain, prison to the impish Wukong for 500 years. Having spectacularly dispatched the tiger (rather too enthusiastically for some animal lovers, it may be said), Wukong is visited by the Goddess Guanyin (Kelly Chan) and summoned to accompany Xuanzang on a journey west to acquire ancient Buddhist scrolls, or sutras, that will calm the natural order of Earth. The pair are accompanied by two of the book’s most beloved characters, pig/man Baije (Xiao Shenyang) and blue-skinned water spirit, Wujing (Him Law).
Soon, supernatural villainy arises in the form of beautiful but lethal White Bone Spirit, Baigujing, played with a seething malevolence by the terrific Gong Li. The actress dominates every scene she’s in, her larger-than-life presence and ethereal beauty perfect for the role. Wukong’s role as bodyguard and protector of Xuanzang leads to a series of spectacular wire-&-CGI encounters with Baigujing and her scantily clad demonic minions (who may prove too nightmarish for the under 10 audience). The film poses some unexpectedly weighty moral questions when the hero is called upon to defend his charge against spirits in the guise of a young girl and her mother; this ‘death of the innocents’ moment is a bold move in a fantasy pic and one that the director and the writing team of Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi pull off with maturity and grace.
In terms of cultural impact and literary significance, perhaps the closest that western audiences have to Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century text is Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings books. And not unlike The Two Towers, the second cinematic chapter of the Rings Trilogy, The Monkey King 2 proves by any measure a superior work to its predecessor. At 120 minutes, it also shares a hefty running time with Peter Jackson’s film that feels over indulgent at times, but that minor complaint want prove any hindrance at all to mainland audiences and Chinese diaspora worldwide. New Years celebrations (and global box office for international distributor China Lion) will be enhanced by arguably the finest big-screen vision to date of Chinese culture’s most beloved literary figure.