Tracing a Taoist priest’s foray from his hermit-like existence into the secular world, Chen Kaige’s “Monk Comes Down the Mountain” is an uncharacteristically lightweight martial-arts caper with a touch of Zen (and sin). Told in the old-school tradition of wuxia serial novels, the film’s simple fable of good and evil unfolds with wondrous visuals that recall the stylistic chutzpah of Chen’s “The Promise,” but absent that pic’s kitschiness. The feast of fighting styles on display will easily woo core Asian genre fans and conquer ancillary markets, and despite the gloomy fates of equally virtuoso martial-arts movies like “Wuxia” and “Reign of Assassins” in China, domestic B.O. looks encouraging; “Monk” took in $7 million on opening day.
Based on a widely read martial-arts novel by author-helmer-scribe Xu Haofeng (“The Sword Identity,” “Judge Archer”), who co-wrote Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” the film is set in Hangzhou during the turbulent 1930s. The screenplay adaptation by Chen and Zhang Ting untangles an array of plotlines involving nationalist-communist espionage, warlords, opera stars and kung fu masters, in the process filtering out such outre figures as Japanese ninjas, Nazi scientists and Tibetan gurus. What’s left is a coming-of-age yarn whose dramatic arc follows the struggles of one school of martial arts rather than several, and the film is all the more digestible for it, playing on contrasts between the monk’s untainted good nature and the twisted minds he encounters.
However, as the setpieces get flashier and the plot thickens, the film’s larky tone gives way to more conventional developments. Interspersed with the protag’s experiences are snippets of Buddhist teachings provided by another monk (Wang Xueqi) he consults, but these are risibly vacuous; equally clunky is the ongoing commentary by an anonymous narrator, whose didactic tone drags the film down to the level of a children’s program or storybook.
In times of unrest, even a sequestered Taoist abbey can’t maintain its peace. To solve the problem of food shortages, the abbot (Li Xuejian) holds a martial-arts tournament to determine who must leave and seek their own livelihood. Novice He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang, “Lost in Thailand”) beats all his opponents, only to be told that, being a champion fighter, he’ll have the best chance of surviving in the secular world. The abbot’s parting advice is that he’ll “meet good and bad people, but a hero stays true to himself.”
The abbot may be stating the obvious, but for someone as cocooned as He, telling good from bad is a tricky challenge; nor is it so easy for him to stay true to himself when faced with different choices and value systems. Later in the story, we learn that He was abandoned as a baby and raised by the abbot, who gave him a name meaning “where to put” because he was literally looking for a place to put the infant down. Although slightly absurd, the name symbolizes our hero’s quest to find his own place physically and spiritually in a perilous yet seductive world.
The first person He encounters in the big city is Dr. Cui Daoning (Fan Wei, “Back to 1942”), who takes him in as an apprentice at his surgery. Reunited after co-starring in “A World Without Thieves” 11 years ago, Fan and Wang through the warmth they generate, transcending mere gags like He’s acrobatics during a circumcision. He stumbles on a secret involving Cui’s beautiful wife, Yuzhen (Li Chiling, bewitching), and his younger brother, Daorong (Vanness Wu, weirdly effeminate), who runs an apothecary. Though what pans out is a familiar variation on the “Legend of Golden Lotus,” Cui’s kindheartedness makes the outcome at once poignant and morally complex.
Adhering to the episodic pattern of wuxia tales, the story finds He becoming a disciple of many masters, like Zhao Xinchuan (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan), the pupil who outshines his master, Peng Qianwu (Yuen Wah); Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok), a self-effacing Taoist priest devoted to sweeping leaves; and Boss Zha (Chang Chen) a Peking opera star. The encounters all showcase different fighting techniques, the names of which progressively sillier, like “Nine Dragon Strike” or “Night or Day Ape Rehearsal.” Already elaborately choreographed, the moves are further embellished with candy-floss visual effects, resulting in a cartoonish look.
Since his acting debut in “Blind Shaft,” Wang has all but patented his role as the gullible, noble idiot; only in the recent “Iceman 3D” and “Kung Fu Jungle” did he prove himself a martial-arts hotshot who could hold his own with Donnie Yen. Here, his rigorous training at Shaolin Temple again comes in handy, though he doesn’t much vary his innocent, fish-out-of-water shtick, and he shows little of He’s transformation from blank slate to complex figure with lustful and vengeful urges.
Though there’s little character depth to Zhou or Zha, the suggestive bromance between two of the most handsome faces in Chinese cinema will draw oohs and aahs from viewers. In a rare low-key performance, Kwok strikes an irresistible world-weary pose in a ragged Taoist robe, while Chang finally does justice to the painstaking training he undertook for “The Grandmaster.” Yuen makes his strongest impression since “Kung Fu Hustle,” playing evil incarnate so inscrutably, you’d trust him with your secret wuxia manual. As Peng’s son Qizi, Jaycee Chen (not credited in any film publicity due to his marajuana scandal) has a “Dumb and Dumber”-esque comic rapport with Wang in the film’s most mindless sequence.
Craft contributions aim to be crowd-pleasing, from Geoffrey Simpson’s prettified lensing to Han Zhong’s fairy-tale-evoking production design. The martial-arts choreography avoids any mainland grittiness, instead following Hong Kong-style, high-wire razzle-dazzle in the vein of Yuen Woo-ping, Tsui Hark and Tony Ching Siu-tung. Chen Tongxun’s costumes are either exquisitely lavish or head-scratchingly kooky, the latter including Qizi’s goth-rock outfits and Daorong’s Leningrad Cowboy bouffant. The 3D conversion looks satisfactory, but CGI sometimes appears glaringly artificial.