Well, this one’s been a long time coming! News that Soi Cheang was to direct a giant, IMAX 3D adaptation of part of the classical novel Journey To The West with a major action star in the lead hit the Web in early 2010, and there’s apparently been a sales stand with a poster at HK Filmart every year since then.
Now, all is revealed! After a couple of years of delays, The Monkey King is here in cinemas in 3D with an almost unrecognisable Donnie Yen scampering about as the titular hero, Sun Wukong the Monkey King.
I’m guessing that almost everyone reading this has had some exposure to Journey to the West: for those who have not, it’s one of the great classical works of Chinese literature, published in the 16th century, and it’s been adapted dozens of times in a wide variety of media. Most familiar to Aussies of a certain age will be the (occasionally extremely) 70s Japanese TV show Monkey! (Saiyūki, 西遊記) — I grew up watching Monkey’s demon-vanquishing exploits on the BBC-dubbed episodes on ABC TV, and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons that I personally love this story so much.
(We’ve covered some other adaptations here on HC before as well: Hong Kong’s Shaw Brother’s studio did four films in the 60s with an endearing simplicity to them, Stephen Chow’s returned to the story recently in last year’s comedy Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, and the tale’s been celebrated in a couple of China’s big early animated films, like 1965’s celebrated Uproar in Heaven.)
What’s new in Soi Cheang’s version compared to all of these — except Chow’s film — is its access to modern visual effects. Gone are the rubber monsters, split-screen effects and coloured smoke (well, most of it). Hollywood VFX experts and Weta digital were bought on board to handle the great gobs of CGI you need to stage battles between mythical creatures in Heaven, not to mention giving Donnie Yen a mountain of golden hair and a prehensile tail. All this isn’t cheap: the budget for the film was reportedly around US$60M, enormous for a Chinese production.
Story-wise, the film follows the early years of Sun Wukong: from his divine birth, through his time as the Handsome Monkey King, his Taoist training, the havoc he wreaks amongst the floating pagodas of the celestial realm, and finally to the Buddha’s intervention. The screenplay wraps all of this in a good-vs-evil plot that seems (to me) to be an attempt to add a proper glowering demon antagonist to this part of the story. In this role they cast the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok), who plots to use Wukong to revenge himself against the forces of Heaven. On the other side is the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun Fat, who exudes gravitas in every scene he’s in), who’d previously thrown all demonfolk out of the celestial realm.
My guess is that this particular approach was chosen because it allowed the screenwriters to fit the story to a more “cinematic” (some might say cartoonish) arc, with plotting villains, a tragic loss for the main hero, and even a scene involving the forging of a giant super-weapon in what might as well be Mount Doom. It’s certainly a valid approach for getting 120 minutes out of such a sprawling, episodic story, but it’s a touch oversimplified for my taste.
The main focus for this film, however, is the titular hero — and he at least doesn’t disappoint. Donnie Yen deserves serious props for his performance, which is hugely physical, very funny and occasionally quite nuanced, quite the achievement given the layers and layers of both makeup and CGI being applied to every shot and every movement. He owns the character completely, whether it’s in the action sequences (which we’d expect, given Yen’s track record) or whether he’s scampering about, hooting and scratching with wild abandon.
The laser-focus on Wukong, though, does mean that the other characters inevitably suffer, and no-one else in the film is all that well-developed or interesting. Chow and Kwok as the leaders of the forces of light and darkness don’t have a lot to do beyond their involvement in the battle scenes and a whole lot of intense close-ups, while many of the other characters get just a scene or two. There’s an abbreviated attempt at a romance with pretty fox-demon Ruxue (Xia Zitong), some conflict between the Bull Demon King and his pregnant wife (Princess Iron Fan, played by Taiwanese actress Joe Chen), but it all feels like it’s been pared down to the minimum required to push the plot along to the next eye-popping action scene.
And there’s one other major issue with the film. For all the expertise involved and the budget available, parts of The Monkey King just don’t Look Good. Wukong himself looks great, and it’s clear that a lot of effort was expended getting there. But many of the environments he inhabits — particularly those that are predominantly computer generated, like the Jade Emperor’s domain in Heaven — do look far too obviously built from polygons. The technical finesse that was brought to bear on Hollywood productions like the Lord of the Rings films (now a decade ago!) just isn’t there, and it’s a bit of a disappointment — there were a couple of scenes that felt distressingly like video-game cutscenes.
(In fairness, I suspect that bringing that impression of solidity, of Realness, to a scene where thousands of dragon-horses fly amongst elaborate golden palaces floating in the clouds is a tough ask for any filmmaker on any budget!)
The weak script and occasionally painful CGI aside make this film a bit more of a mixed bag than I’d hoped, but there’s no denying that it really is enjoyable to watch for anyone who loves the character of the Monkey King. I suspect that it’ll do well across Asia as perfectly solid family entertainment, like a Saturday morning cartoon writ very large indeed.
The Monkey King is screening across Australia right now. See distributor Magnum Films’ website for cinema details!