Sun Wukong returns to the big screen in The Monkey King 2, the follow-up film to director Cheang Pou-soi’s 2014 Monkey King feature film. Right on time for Chinese New Year in the year of the monkey, it’s exactly what you want in a New Year film: big, broad, comfortably familiar and filled with with ample amounts of comedy and spectacle.
(If you’re not up on the Monkey King story — Aussies of a certain age should think Monkey Magic — read our review of the first film for a bit of a primer and links to info on other adaptations.)
This film picks up where the last left off, after Wukong’s frenzied havoc in heaven, and introduces the rest of the characters destined to toil away on a pilgrimage to the West. Feng Shaofeng plays monk Tang Sanzang (Tripitaka), who’s just setting out with two rather hapless, mortal escorts. Chance, or more likely fate, leads him to the mountain under which Wukong is imprisoned, and the two of them are bound together by the golden circlet Guanyin has organised to ensure Wukong’s good behaviour. In short order the two of them pick up their other companions: Zhu Bajie (Pigsy, played by Xiaoshenyang), whose handsomeness spell doesn’t ever seem to go the distance, and Sha Wujing (Sandy, played by Him Law), who’s a bit slow on the uptake but has his heart in the right place.
Their journey takes them through a kingdom being terrorised by the White Bone Demon Baigujing (played with a kind of alluring menace by Gong Li) and her demonic underlings. The word on the street is that they’ve been snatching and consuming the kingdom’s children; however, they are mere appetisers compared to her newfound focus, consuming the flesh of the monk Tang Sanzang. The king receives the pilgrims and appeals to Tang for help — can they rid his kingdom of the scourge White Bone Demon?
The most important thing in any Monkey movie, of course, is the titular performance: will the gentleman in the three hours of make-up manage to bring the character to life. And we’ve had plenty of good examples, from Stephen Chow’s metamorphosis in the Chinese Odyssey movies through to martial artist Donnie Yen’s athletic, and excellent, performance in the previous Monkey King. Yen was replaced for this sequel by Aaron Kwok (who, incidentally, played the Bull Demon King in the first film), and he does a decent job, though the nuances of character development are perhaps less important to the role in this film than the barrage of CGI-assisted action sequences and hurtling about. Both Kwok and the writers get the balance between Wukong’s elemental nature and his — occasionally headache-assisted — respect for his master across, though.
As is often the case, particularly when you’ve only got two hours to work with, his companions get less time develop. Tang is noble and pure, Zhu is all ego and Sha is brawny but a bit dim — and that’s about all we get to see as the film hurriedly runs through the introductions to get to the meat of the story. The bulk of the rest of the screen time is spent on Gong Li vamping it up as the White Bone Demon. She’s reminiscent of the demonesses of HK cinema yesteryear (think Tsui Hark’s Green Snake or the Chinese Ghost Story films), except that the floating chiffon and dreamy wirework glides have been amped up with modern CGI. She’s great fun, particularly in the rather grim but memorable scene in which she’s introduced.
The Monkey King 2 is considerably more than just a cash-grab on the back of its successful precedecessor, something it easily could have been. There’s been some care taken to ensure that although the characters are well-known, the storytelling is fresh and modern, there are a couple of nice little twists, and the whole thing looks great, from the locations (this time largely earthbound) to the omnipresent CGI. In many ways, it’s not unlike the raft of decent comic book adaptations currently ruling Hollywood — just with older heroes.