Want to see a movie where a bunch of stuff happens? You’ve come to the right place.
I really don’t know what to make of this one. I entertained a fancy of simply posting a series of screenshots to convey how discombobulating a viewing experience this film provides, but I’m going to try and describe it as best I can in words as well.
Imagine a meandering and often lovely-to-look-at indie film, with a main narrative thread broken up by many side stories, except those side stories swing between gentle, tragic and more off-the-wall than a 90s Stephen Chow comedy bit. Some of it is so buck wild it feels like a deliberate string of non-sequiturs, yet I still had the nagging feeling some of it was going over my head, like it was culturally Chinese enough I was just missing context. After all, Chen Kaige is a director with serious artistic credentials. On the other hand, he also directed The Promise. Much of our review of that movie rings true for Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Applying oblique arthouse sensibilities to something aiming for mass market appeal is a formula for dissonance.
In an amusing flip of expectations, He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang) is asked to leave his monastery after winning a fight. So our monk heads down the mountain to make his own way in the wild and woolly world, going through a succession of sifus and encountering an assortment of personalities, many played by very recognisable actors. Initially the film seems like it’s going to settle into a gently humourous, slice-of-life rhythm, as He Anxia’s good-natured charm rubs off on the world around him.
The first teacher to take in the itinerant monk is a pharmacist (Fan Wei) and soon He Anxia is putting his gymnastic abilities to use… to distract a young boy about to be circumcised. Yup. That’s the kind of tonal disjoint prevalent throughout the rest of the film. When Vanness Wu’s disaffected and entitled man-child with exaggeratedly coiffed hair entered the picture shortly thereafter, it was clear this was going to be a trip.
The story takes place in an unnamed city in an unnamed time period, which lets the film take a pick and mix approach to the setting without concern for anachronisms spoiling the verisimilitude. Some fantastical touches aid suspension of disbelief and throw up some striking visuals as well. A boat sinking in clear lake water containing large carved stonework, while exploding pottery adds contrasting red starbursts to the scene, is quite the sight.
The imagery is probably the main reason to persevere with this one. Some of it is beautiful and some of it is startlingly bizarre. The tone jumps around so much without discernable dramatic intent it can be hard to judge when scenes are being played straight and when they are being deliberately silly. The characters too are such a mixture of stoic and tragic, light-hearted and earnest or over the top caricature, it’s genuinely confusing. I wouldn’t call any of the performances bad and everyone commits to what they are doing, but they feel like they’re in different movies.
The exposition of the film’s main through-line encapsulates its oddness. He Anxia first comes across a potent martial arts technique when a man played by Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan visits the pharmacy. Having witnessed the incredible focused power of the technique, He Anxia’s questions about it are simply answered by the line “It’s hard to explain”. I laughed at that, taking it as an intentional joke about brushing off a complicated mystical explanation or at least a way of leaving aside such detail as unimportant. Much later though, there is an in depth explanation, delivered by Aaron Kwok as a kung fu master waxing poetical about the mysteries of the universe, tying in numerous elements laid out earlier in the film. In the middle of this dialogue however, the scene cuts to this.
This particular CGI is fine on it’s own, stylised enough to avoid being a failed attempt at appearing realistic, and the image is related to the background being told, but by this point so much wackiness had appeared before my disbelieving eyes there was no taking it seriously.
The visual and practical effects, along with the action choreography, also lurch around in quality. Sometimes they are shoddy and sometimes they are executed well, but even then their contribution to the film is at the mercy of the bemusing nature of the overall product. In the war movie flashback — another thing that happens — two characters are locked in a fierce hug on a bridge as explosions fill the frame with fireballs and gouts of water. It looks technically flawless but is still hilarious, whether intentionally or not it’s again hard to say.
I have not seen any of Chen Kaige’s work before, so this was quite the introduction. The length of the movie made the wobbling tone wearying despite the zany overall effect. I usually like to watch something twice to review it; one round for entertainment purposes and one round for a more critical evaluation, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit through Monk Comes Down the Mountain again. In the end, the only way I made it through was to embrace the bonkers and go along for the ride, without wondering if I was being taken for one.