With screen goddess Gong Li vamping it up as the villainous enchantress Lady White Bone and a tearful bromance between Cantopop king Aaron Kwok and mainland heartthrob William Feng Shaofeng, what’s not to like about Soi Cheang’s 3D vfx orgy “The Monkey King 2”? Certainly less of a dud than the director’s inane original, this follow-up is even more tyke-oriented, but at least it’s a livelier yarn and boasts a slick upgrade in visual effects. Mainland Chinese families are sure to go bananas over this Lunar New Year offering; it’s almost certain to surpass its predecessor, which broke China’s opening-day records.
One of the many screen adaptations of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel “Journey to the West” (last year alone brought us the web-TV remake “Surprise” and the animated “Monkey King: Hero Is Back”) “The Monkey King in 3D” (2014) felt like a prequel rather than the real thing, dealing as it did with the genesis of Sun Wukong, aka Monkey, and culminating in his epic vandalism of heaven. With Donnie Yen in the title role and serving as action director, the film couldn’t decide whether to be a hardcore martial-arts film or a kiddie fantasy; it ended up being lousy at both, allowing gaudy CGI to swamp an already meh narrative.
Considering what a low bar the original set, it’s not surprising that Cheang’s second go at the legend gets a few things right. The new film adheres quite closely to the basic contours of its source, “Three Attacks on the White Bone Demon” (Chapter 27 of the legend, also the film’s Chinese title), which keeps the yarn easily digestible, apart from a few embellishments in art direction and a bit more psychological exposition. Genre-wise, the movie positions itself explicitly as a Disney-style fantasy that’s driven by effects rather than action. Visually, it boldly sheds some traditional Chinese tropes that have been done to death in other versions, and riffs freely on Western genre models, from the widely borrowed “Ring” and “Harry Potter” cycles to revisionist fairy tales like “Maleficent.”
After a hasty recap of part one, the film jumps forward 500 years to a fateful encounter in which the pious monk Xuanzang, aka Tripitaka (Feng, “Wolf Totem”), crawls into a cave to evade a tiger and accidentally releases Wukong (now played by Kwok), who had been stripped of his powers and imprisoned under the Mountain of Five Elements by Buddha for his delinquency. The Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen, “Breaking News”) appears and tells Wukong that it’s his destiny to escort Xuanzang on his pilgrimage to India to obtain a holy sutra.
Naturally, Wukong wants nothing to do with this nagging nincompoop, who cherishes all creatures great and small — even the dragon that leaps out of nowhere and gulps down his trusty steed. But Buddha has ensured that Wukong complies by placing a gold hoop around his crown, which causes the worst migraines whenever his master starts his incantations. The entourage is complete when two more demons are brought into the fold: Bajie (Xiao Shenyang, “A Simple Noodle Story”) and Wujing (Hong Kong TV thesp Him Law), better known as Pigsy and Sandy to tykes in the West.
Meanwhile, inside Moon Water Cave on White Tiger Ridge, Lady White Bone wishes to indefinitely renew her thousand-year demonhood, which will expire in a few days unless she eats Xuanzang, whose flesh can confer immortality. She disguises herself as an old crone to wait for her prey in a house in the forest, the sort only princesses on the run from evil stepmothers are irrational enough to enter. Lady White Bone is infamous for her powers of dissembling, and the script expands on the chapter’s skeletal plot in which she disguises herself as a girl, her mother and her father. A master of mind games, she sows discord between master and disciple by exploiting Xuanzang’s undiscerning compassion, Wukong’s desire for freedom, and Bajie’s lust for her sexy sidekicks (bat girl, snake woman and boar babe).
Also woven into this battle of wits is a subplot about the monarch of Cloud Kingdom (played by Taiwanese pop and musical star Kris Phillips), who begs Xuanzang to solve a dire case of child abduction in his realm. As a commentary on how humans can be more wicked than demons, it’s pretty cliche, but as an excuse for a banquet scene with a Persian theme, it’s magnificent, harking back to the novel’s exotic Silk Road background. Even though the ending wades into airy-fairy yet didactic territory, the climactic battle with a skeleton army on the snowy cliffs of White Tiger Ridge offers a zany CGI riff on the Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation in “Jason and the Argonauts,” capped by White Bone’s spectacularly rickety reversion to real form.
Fairy tales are only as good as their villains, and Gong certainly knows how to chew the scenery, even if her Lady White Bone couldn’t sink her fangs into monk flesh. Whispering in a velvety voice, she’s less hissing witch than sultry seductress, her majestic presence betraying an utter contempt for humanity. Soaring through the air in Yee Chung-man’s resplendent robes of white lace or black sequins, Gong resembles an endlessly unfurling scroll of expensive fabric.
Kwok (who played the baddie Bull King in the first film) may not have the martial prowess to pull off Yen’s knockout stunts, but he gives a much better performance, especially since his appearance has been modified to make the actor’s face more recognizable beneath the monkey makeup. He and Feng share a frenemy rapport that’s par for the course with road movies, even if it often devolves into risibly teary melodrama. Feng is all sly playfulness when playing the long-winded, gullible nerd, but he also has sufficient acting chops to show his character’s compassionate side.
Even the supporting role are more vividly rendered here than in the prequel. Comedian Xiao hogs all the funniest lines but also puts an adult spin on Bajie’s image, accentuating his sleazebag side and blithely chatting up the femme demons who want to turn him into schnitzel. Resembling a Smurf who goes to the gym a lot, Wujing is little more than a brawny simpleton, but at least Law makes him winningly good-natured.
Tech credits demonstrate the astonishing progress that Chinese productions have made in a brief period of time. Although it’s still a little glaring when figures are chroma-keyed into vast outdoor backgrounds, the overall visual effects, 3D quality and creature design are all impressive, considering the massive scale on which they’re deployed. The dexterity of Yang Tao and Cheung Man-po’s lensing is apparent in sweeping shots of intricate motion and flight, as when White Bone bursts out of a giant mural of herself, or swoops over her prey like a raven. Daniel Fu’s tastefully ornate production design revels in embossed gold surfaces inside the palace chambers; the building exteriors, with their piercing spires and minarets, feel more Middle-earth than Middle Kingdom.