×

Film Review: ‘The Monkey King 3’

The hit franchise takes a step backward in this blandly romantic adventure set in a Chinese land of Amazons.

Director:
Soi Cheang
With:
William Feng Shaofeng, Zhao Liying, Aaron Kwok, Gigi Leung, Lin Chiling, Xiao Shenyang, Him Law, Kingdom Yuen. (Mandarin, English dialogue)
Release Date:
Feb 16, 2018

1 hour 56 minutes

Monkeying around with 16th-century Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” yet again, Hong Kong action veteran Soi Cheang’s third installment in the hit Monkey King franchise ventures into a kingdom populated exclusively by women. And yet, while its femme-focused premise suggests rich opportunities to challenge traditional Chinese gender roles, “The Monkey King 3” disappointingly resists the chance to reinvent female identity. Though the gaudy production pales in comparison to the previous installment on nearly every artistic level, a visible improvement in 3D effects, combined with the film’s family-friendly subject and a day-and-date release in the U.S., should make it a cinch to surpass the previous film’s record opening two years ago.

Back in 2014, when Cheang’s original “The Monkey King” earned a whopping $15.5 million, the film swiftly evolved from a clever one-off into a lucrative Chinese New Year’s franchise — easy to do, given the infinite stories suggested by its epic source material. With “The Monkey King 2,” Cheang found his groove, transcending mere popcorn entertainment by introducing a charismatic and poignantly layered villain in the form of Gong Li’s White-Boned Demon. Though he and screenwriter Elvis Man slip back into shallow, showy mode again here, production company Filmko’s plan to roll out five more installments seems unstoppable.

According to the surviving travelogue written by Xuanzhuang (AKA Tripitaka), whose legendary pilgrimage to India is detailed in “Journey to the West,” the Tang Dynasty monk traversed a land where women ruled while men served them as farmers and soldiers. In Chapter 54 of the novel, author Wu Cheng’en concocted a “Kingdom of Maidens” in which men were non-existent, and where women only gave birth to daughters after impregnating themselves by drinking from the “Spring of Motherhood.”

Western viewers may instinctively associate the place with Themiscyra, home of the Amazons in Greek mythology — and more recently, Wonder Woman. A closer precedent is probably the Mosuo tribe, a Chinese ethnic minority whose matriarchal society dates back thousands of years. The shooting location of Sichuan, where the tribe still lives, suggests this affinity.

However, the film passes up the chance to affirm womankind’s independence by focusing on a sense of deprivation among its female characters, explained by one jilted woman’s vengeful attitude toward men. Elsewhere, the film’s take on a notorious segment of “Journey” in which men get pregnant touches on the moral responsibility of abortion (a sore point in the context of China’s one-child policy) but ultimately resolves it in a tasteless farce.

Xuanzhuang (William Feng Shaofeng, “Wolf Totem”) and his disciples Wukong (Aaron Kwok, “Cold War”), Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), and Wujing (Him Law) find themselves adrift along a deep gorge when they are assaulted by a river god (“Red Cliff” actress Lin Chiling). The film uses its 3D format to optimum effect in a storm sequence that deploys dinghies as if it’s some kind of speedboat race, or perhaps a surfing scene from “Point Break.”

Then, pathologically clumsy Xuanzhuang falls off a cliff, colliding into a young woman (Zhao Liying, “Duckweed”). Artful cinematography by Richard Bluck and Yang Tao make the couple’s downward plunge look like a romantic bungee jump. “Are you a man?” she asks with genuine curiosity. “Do I look like anything else?” he replies, with instant self-doubt.

The young ingenue is the Queen of Womanland, a kingdom hidden from the outside world by a kekkai (magical force field). When she returns to court, her enthusiasm about meeting the first man in her life is instantly doused by the Preceptor (Gigi Leung, “Tempting Heart”), who reminds her of the ancestral edicts that men spread a poisonous virus called love, and must be executed. Well, it’s too late because the Queen is already smitten, and viral-transmitters are already on the premises.

In the novel, the citizens of Womanland burn with lust for the male species, and the Queen imperiously decides her own marriage. Influenced by a beloved 1986 mainland TV drama, which sweetened the encounter into a “Romeo and Juliet”-style tale of doomed love, the screen version sentimentalizes the relationship by portraying the Queen like a prepubescent Disney princess, and Xuanzhuang as a romantic fettered by celibacy vows. With little convincing passion flowing either way, their entanglement slackens the pace.

A second thread about the river god’s romantic past is even more mystifying: He never saw his belle but telegraphed their love across a dam. Heavily airbrushed and androgynous to the point of being unrecognizable, Lin’s cross-dressed role suggests the mystical creature at the center of “The Shape of Water,” albeit a vapidly de-sexualized version.

With Monkey, the film”s most potent protagonist, sidelined for much of the film, the action feels truncated. Midway, a terrific fight against two giant crustaceans reminiscent of the scorpion scene in “Clash of the Titans” alleviates the tedium of hearing the protagonists puzzle over the meaning of love. But then the last 30 minutes is drowned in a deluge of water-themed visual effects. While the previous film had some delightfully warped creature designs (including spider demons and what looked like a skeleton on steroids), the monsters here are neither scary nor magnificent enough.

Sweeping aerial shots revel in the most breathtaking scenery from China, while 3D and visual effects from such Korean outfits as Dexter, Digital Idea, and Mofac create dynamic movement, with objects leaping across and out of the screen (though there are instances of overexposed light and blurred focus).

Korean production designer Cho Hwa-sung makes Womanland as exotic as an Aman resort, building an organic yet palatial set from rattan and banana that blends into the mountainous habitat. Costumes by Lee Pik-kwan, on the contrary, are a nightmare of jumbled style and coordination, mixing ethnic costumes with Greek tunics, Regency chemises, and sci-fi alien attire.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Monkey King 3'

Reviewed at UA Cinetimes, Hong Kong, Feb. 15, 2018. Running time: 116 MIN. (Original title: "Xi You Ji Zhi Nv’erguo")

Production: (H.K.-China) A Filmko (Hong Kong) Pictures Co., Jiangsu Humble Stone Film Distribution Co. Huerguosi Humble Stone Film Distribution (in China), Well Go USA Entertainment (in U.S.) release of a Filmko Film, Shanghai Hanna Pictures production. (International sales: Filmko Film, Hong Kong.) Producer: Soi Cheang. Executive producer: Wong Hoi-fung. Co-executive producers: La Peikang, Jiang Dong, Fu Ruoqing, Yang Yiyang, Wang Gaofei, Jerry Li, Connie Chen, David, Mu Yedong.

Crew: Director: Soi Cheang. Screenplay: Elvis Man. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D): Richard Bluck, Yang Tao. Editor: Yau Chi-wai. Music: Yu Kobayashi.

With: William Feng Shaofeng, Zhao Liying, Aaron Kwok, Gigi Leung, Lin Chiling, Xiao Shenyang, Him Law, Kingdom Yuen. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

More Film

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

  • US director Francis Ford Coppola holds

    Francis Ford Coppola Honored With Prestigious Lumiere Prize by Thierry Fremaux, Bong Joon Ho

    Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France. The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and [...]

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

  • Robert Zemeckis

    Robert Zemeckis in Talks to Direct Live-Action 'Pinocchio' for Disney (EXCLUSIVE)

    Robert Zemeckis is in early talks to direct Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio.” Andrew Miano and Chris Weitz will produce through their company Depth of Field with Weitz penning the script. “Paddington” director Paul King had originally been tapped to direct but had to leave the project for unknown reasons at the beginning of the year. David [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content