Film Review: ‘The Monkey King in 3D’

The Monkey King

Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang infuses a simplistic, action-driven narrative with inexhaustible energy, but little style or substance.

More than three years in the making, and easily the most ambitious cinematic rendition yet of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” “The Monkey King in 3D” nonetheless can’t match the technical refinement or storytelling smarts of its Hollywood counterparts. Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang infuses a simplistic, action-driven narrative with inexhaustible energy, but one expects greater stylistic flair and substance from the veteran helmer behind “Motorway” and “Dog Bites Dog.” Still, this CG-cluttered fantasy epic will still do well if marketed as family entertainment; opening on multiple Imax screens at home, it’s already expected to break Chinese New Year B.O. records.

Chinese viewers will be compelled to compare “The Monkey King” with Stephen Chow’s recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”; while that film filled in the gaps of Xuanzang’s early life, this one traces the path that led Monkey to become the monk’s disciple. Admittedly, Chow’s humor and brilliantly subversive instincts are inimitable, but the collaboration of four scribes here has nevertheless produced a shallow, juvenile screenplay that plays like “Journey to the West for Beginners,” with borderline-cardboard characters.

The pic kicks off in high gear with an apocalyptic turf war between the deities and demons, rendered in six minutes of nonstop, “Transformers”-style mayhem during which both sides seem less intent on defeating each other than simply smashing the surrounding celestial architecture to smithereens. The deities prevail, led by Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat), whose sister, Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), pleads for the life of rebel leader Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok), whom she loves. The couple is banished, along with the whole demon tribe, to Flaming Mountain.

The task of postwar reconstruction falls on the shoulders of goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin), who gives up her own body to fill the cracks in the firmament (don’t ask how). What’s left of her afterward is a pink, Kryptonite-ish substance that falls to Earth and enables the genesis of a primate embryo. And so Monkey is born.

While living inside his bubble, the infant Monkey is befriended by a snowy fox. When he grows up (now by Donnie Yen), he re-encounters the fox in the form of a pretty, fur-clad girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong). They fall in love, entwining tails like in an old Disney cartoon, blissfully unaware that Bull has other plans for them in his scheme to retake the Heavenly Palace. Meanwhile, the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen) sends Taoist master Puti (Hai Yitian) to be Monkey’s mentor and teach him magic. Unfortunately, Puti is not much of a disciplinarian, and his pupil, now called Sun Wukong, becomes naughtier than ever.

For more than 100 minutes, Wukong goes on a series of adventures, which invariably involve him vandalizing deity property like the Eastern Sea Palace, Jade Emperor’s celestial stable, or the fairy peach grove. Most Chinese kids know these chapters by heart, and there’s no new take here; the only novelty is that the effects are splashier in such a movie adaptation, with CGI so pervasive that one sometimes forgets they’re watching a live-action film.

“Journey to the West” was one of the few ancient classics not branded “revisionist” when the Chinese Communist Party took power: During the Cultural Revolution, in such propaganda films as the animated “Uproar in Heaven,” the Monkey King was celebrated as a role model for Red Guards — an anarchic force of nature that rose up against the ruling elite. In Jeff Lau’s “Chinese Odyssey” series, made on the eve of Hong Kong’s handover to China, the Monkey King was portrayed as an Everyman at the mercy of history, grappling with existential questions.

This current blockbuster incarnation, by contrast, is arguably the most vanilla of the bunch, portraying Monkey/Wukong as playful rather than rebellious, and only a threat to the social order when treacherously provoked. All of which makes him friendlier to a tyke audience, but it provides Yen with little room to flex his acting muscles or otherwise emote effectively; in fact, the thesp looks unrecognizable in his hairy suit and heavy makeup.

Jade Emperor is as majestic and magnanimous as any absolute ruler can get, but it’s a dull role, and Chow’s attempts to enliven it through occasional banter with Wukong come to naught. Kwow looks sexier than one might expect for a man with horns jutting out of his forehead, but his vengeful Bull is one of the flattest roles he’s played. Bull’s accomplice, the three-eyed celestial gatekeeper Erlangshen (Peter Ho), proves the most intriguing and psychologically persuasive character here, essentially a disgruntled employee who’s been denied a promotion or pay rise for several centuries.

Yang Tao and Cheung Man-po’s compositions and the computer illustrations (by more than a dozen vfx companies) boast a geometry inspired by traditional Chinese art, notably in a scene where a pack of flying horses form a beautiful symmetrical pattern in the sky. However, many of the visuals are oversaturated and simply sub-standard, resembling cheap computer-game fare; most annoyingly, the fight scenes are often obscured by scattered debris. The creature design ranges from magnificent to kitschy.

With so much animation crowding the background, the terrific high-wire action (directed by Yen) is frequently upstaged. Production design is sumptuous when it comes to the various heavenly and underwater habitats, but inexcusably slack in its evocation of the hellish Flaming Mountain, which consists of only two sets: a dreary, charred cave interior and a sooty pit.

Film Review: 'The Monkey King in 3D'

Reviewed at UA Windsor Cinema, Hong Kong, Jan. 30, 2014. Running time: 119 MIN. Original title: "Xiyouji zhi da nao tiangong"

Production

(Hong Kong-China) A Filmko Entertainment, Newport Entertainment (in Hong Kong)/Beijing Anshi Naying Culture Co., China Film Group, Wanda Media (in China) release of a Filmko Entertainment, Mandarin Films Co., China Film Group presentation of a Filmko Entertainment, Shenzhen Golden Shores Films production in association with Zhejiang HG Entertainment Co., Shenzhen Golden Shores Films, Dongguan Boning Entreprise and Investment Co. (International sales: Filmko Entertainment, Hong Kong.) Produced by Kiefer Liu. Executive producers, Kiefer Liu, Zhao Haicheng, Chen Jingshi, Luo Qi, Han Lei, Ye Dewei, Zhang Quanxin, Hou Li. Co-executive producers, Xu Yong'an, Chen Canqiu, Keefer Liu, Harvey Wong.

Crew

Directed by Soi Cheang. Screenplay, Szeto Kam-yuen, Edmund Wong, Huo Xin, Dali Chen. Camera (color, widescreen, HD, 3D), Yang Tao, Cheung Man-po; editor, Cheung Ka-fai; music/music supervisor, Christopher Young ; production designer, Daniel Fu; art director, Yang Changzhi; set decorators, Zhang Haiwang, Zhao Zhanli; costume designers, William Cheung, Yee Chung-man, Guo Pei, Lee Pik-kwan; sound (Dolby Digital), Jay Yin; re-recording mixers, Steve Burgess, Chris Goodes; special makeup, Shaun Smith, Mark Philip Garbarino; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Rafferty, Ding Libo, Kim Wook, Kim Jung-hoon, Patrick Kim, Kim Chan-goo, Park Myung-song, Lee In-ho, Li Rui, Shin Chang-dong, Eric Xu, Rita Shi, Fort Guo, Billy Zhuang, Chris Q Yao, Adrian Chen, Jiang Weibin, David Ebner, Jeff Goldman; visual effects, GS VFX, Dexter China VFX, Dexter Digital, CJ Powercast, Idea, Macrograph, Illumina VFX, Wuji LMZ Art&Design, Mad Man, Digital Studio 21, More VFX, Revo Fx, Technicolor, PO Beijing, Studio 51, Lucky Dog, TWR Entertainment, Z Storm, DEVFX, the Resistance Visual Effects; stereoscopic supervisors, Daniel L. Symmes, Keith Collea; action director, Donnie Yen; stunt coordinators, Kenji Tanigaki, Yan Hua; assistant director, Mai Yonglin, Vash Yan; Casting, Liu Shiliu, Liu Sasa.

With

Donnie Yen, Aaron Kwok, Chow Yun-fat, Peter Ho, Hai Yitian, Xia Zitong, Joe Chen, Kelly Chen, Gigi Leung, Zhang Zilin, Calvin Cheng, Cheung Siu-fai. (Cantonese dialogue)

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  1. gforce says:

    Alright this is truly one hot mess of a vfx whatever….apparently, it broke iron man 3’s opening week in China…but hey I guess it’s the same demographic that pays to watch transformers;
    Pre-requisite for a sure fire hit movie, 1) confusing battle scenes, 2) noisy confusing scenes 3) one dimensional characters 4) discombobulated story line

    I decided not to have a go at the compromised vfx or set design or make-up (and u wonder where the money went to?) Transformers had good vfx but it was just a dog’s breakfast of a story.

    So yes, story in this instalment of monkey king was not invested whatsoever but I guess it’s not important as long as it makes 1.25 times it’s budget…..considering some big budget Hollywood movies just break even……well done?

  2. MAXWELL says:

    To Mr Cheang Poi Soi, Donnie Yen, Chow Yun Fatt, Aaron Kwok & the writing team of Monkey King,

    I am the Biggest fan of Xi You Ji (Journey to The West), so I feel compel to write this review.

    I have read the novel many times and I have also seen almost all the screen adaptations of the novel dating back to the sixties, when Monkey King was played by a then unknown Yueh Hua.

    I went to see Monkey King, despite the bad reviews and comments from my friends.

    I could not believe what you guys did to bring the classic to the big screen.

    Monkey King is probably one of the most ugliest movie ever ever made. I cannot believe that US$60mil was spent on such unbelievably bad CGI.

    And the plot strays away from the original, so much so that it becomes weakened.

    As I told my friend just now, Monkey King is the worst adaptation to date, and probably one of the worst movie I have seen in the last 50 years.

    What is wrong?

    1) Excessive use of CGI….and the CGI is bad, very bad. I don’t think I am the first to point this out.

    2) You can’t make an entire Xi You Ji movie in a studio. Learn from Shaw Bros early production of Journey To The West and Mr Zhang Ji Zhong.

    3) The interpretation of Sun Wukong is unconvincing. The screenplay portrays Sun Wukong like a gullible country bumpkin, easily manipulated.
    Sun Wukong was intelligent and rebellious; and this was something the script did not deal with at all.

    4) The acting from Mr Chow and Mr Aaron Kwok….I don’t think I need to say much on the subject.

    5) If you want to twist the plot of the classic, have the imagination to do it. Learn from Chow Sing Chi’s adaptation.
    But don’t do it in a half-baked manner, which can have disastrous consequences.

    6) Maybe future producers of Xi You Ji would want to focus a certain episode of the journey to the west…on a certain villain, so that the screenplay can be more focus.

    7) Finally to the future superstars who will be cast in another Xi You Ji movie, please don’t do it for just the money….
    To the future script writers of another Xi You Ji adaptation, please have respect for Mr Wu’s classic….
    And to the special effects team, please learn from previous efforts….

    I am still trying to recover from the headache I experienced from watching the movie.

  3. julijoanna says:

    I was really looking forward to this movie, and I hated it.
    I am chinese, and grew up with this iconic story.

    The thing that bothers me the most is not the heavy CGI or acting, its the story. I find it insulting, making utterly no sense at all. Sun Wukong’s character was acted well, but he didnt have much character development and was portrayed as naiive and playful rather than being true to the real version which is actually calculative and rebellious. I hated the awkward love affair with the snowy fox. In the beginning, Sun Wukong is a hero to his fellow monkey subjects (which stay COMPLETELY ALIVE since he was MEANT to destroy the book of life and death which actually stops the lot of them from dying), but a tyrant to heaven. In the original, he didnt need incentive to destroy shiz, he does it because he is king and king does anything he fancies. They’ve got it all wrong Im so angry. They make him look like a misunderstood little boy. He is supposed to be the icon of freedom and rebelism here, doing whatever the hell he likes whenever the hell he likes. The things he does, vandalising the palace, stealing the sacred peaches, crashing the peach party (doesnt happen), destroying hell (doesnt happen), defeating 10,000 celestial soldiers, he does this all on his own accord.

    He is the challenger of heaven.
    He’s not a hero. He is the antagonist, but an antihero.
    The whole thing is about how he messes shiz up again and again in arrogance, being the one and only force to ever come close, and he was soooo close, to toppling heaven, and then squashed by the buddha both literally and figuratively.

    This is so he could learn to redeem himself. That is truly the main point of the rest of the story. Wu Kong learning right and wrong, redemption.

    In this version, it simply isn’t him.
    The legendary bet with the budda doesnt even happen. It made me what to get up and scream when the movie Wukong simply ACCEPTED punishment! Punishment that made no damn sense since bull demon king is the big bad. WHAT!

    I feel everyone is so out of character its painful.
    Bull demon king
    Ne Zha
    Tie San Gong Zhu, Princess iron fan
    Jade Emperor
    The freakin Buddha
    omfg Er Lan Shen

    The film makes no sense to people unfamiliar with the story, those who are familiar, I deeply advice you not to watch this movie. It will make you cry.

    • Wayne Heng says:

      Hi julijoanna,

      As a chinese myself, and having live in this era where Monkey King TV serials from Hong Kong and China were plentiful and I grew up watching them, reading Chinese comics about Monkey King since young, having whole collection of Journey to the West toys and really love Sun Wu Kong as a hero from Asia.. I have to say i disagree with you.

      Now is the time where the west reign supreme, at least here in Singapore people are getting really westernized, Kids at home now are watching superhero movies from the west, going to school where teachers are giving them stickers of western superheroes like Spiderman and Batman, and superhero movies are reigning supreme in the box office here.. while Asiatic films like Monkey King is not even shown in 11/37 cinemas here in Singapore..

      And my kids and nephews have no idea who Sun Wu Kong is…until last year where i brought them to watch Stephen Chow’s “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”… and then because of the portrayal of Sun Wu Kong in the movie, they were all very afraid and really hated Journey to the west… I tried to tell them more about Journey to the West, one of the 4 greatest novels in China, and as a picture says a thousand words, i bought the DVD of Jet Li and Jackie Chan’s Forbidden Kingdom and showed them.. Yet another movie loosely based on Journey to the West with no ounce of familiarity with the original story.

      This was the final attempt, bringing the kids to watch Monkey King 3D featuring Donnie Yen, and trust me, this is perhaps one of the best introduction we can have to kids who really like simple stories and CGI effects, and more-over it is perhaps already the closest to the original story(coupled to Chow’s version and the Forbidden Kingdom). They enjoyed it thoroughly and can’t wait for the sequel(greenlit only if it hits 150million USD in China, an almost impossible feat).

      My point is this, I am not saying this is a great movie, but trust me… for kids, this is perhaps the best introduction to Journey to the West story for Generation Y, yes there are some changes here and there but we can tell the kids afterwards. Props to the actors, film company, directors and producers for risking it all, putting in 88 mill USD and invest in an asian film to try and remind people like us that we grew up with our very own eastern superhero, Monkey King, not spiderman or superman.

      The fact that it allows you to come here to comment proves that Journey to the West is still relevant, which i feel very happy about.

      With such a huge investment and A list actors, i don’t think we can expect the whole story to be the same, if the whole plot is the same, then there is no need for an original movie in 2014..anybody can come out with the script right? i expect changes and the changes are acceptable because they are really minute, and stay true to the spirit of Journey to the West. An innocent and playful monkey wrecking havoc in heaven to protect his loved ones and for the curiosity of achieving more power, always wondering what is his limits.

      Great story. Great Acting, Good directing. CGI needs improvements, but 4 years of post production is enough.

      Overall, i think this is perhaps the best version of Journey to the West we can get right now. I enjoyed it, the kids enjoyed it, they want more, i show them the TVB serial from Hong Kong and let them understand the real story of Monkey King. Win-win. =)

      Have a Happy Chinese New Year. Hope Monkey King earns big bucks in the box office.

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