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.”
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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.