Over the top visuals offer little to distract from this shallow adaptation
“Am I awesome?”
The nature of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West certainly lends itself to grandiose imagery. Every other page a poem describes the majesty of a mountain or the unbelievable beauty of Heaven. The descriptions spark the imagination, so it’s no surprise that there are so many adaptations of the work. And with modern effects, it’s easier than ever to depict these wonderful sights – or at least give it your best try. In 2014, prolific director Cheang Pou-soi thought he’d give it a whirl with his own take on the first few chapters of the book. It was successful enough to spawn two sequels, so let’s see how it goes.
As you’d expect from a film about Sun Wukong, this one opens with … a battle between the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) and the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat given very little to do here). Strange start, but sure let’s see how this progresses. After the war destroys most of Heaven, the goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin in a role taken from Chinese creation myths) restores it by turning herself into crystals – just go with it – and a piece of herself falls to Earth, giving birth to Sun Wukong (Donnie Yen). Ah, OK. Here we go! So after he bows to the four winds and … no? Oh, so Wukong meets a nine-tailed fox (Xia Zitong as a love interest to Wukong) and is approached the Subhuti (Hai Yitian) who brings him back to learn immortality?
The Subhuti then plays a prominent role throughout, going so far as to enter the gates of Heaven and talk to the Jade Emperor himself, which seems very out of character. Just what is going on here? So it’s evident now that 2014’s The Monkey King doesn’t follow Wu Cheng’en’s story all that strongly, instead choosing to sort of do its own thing with the plot points. By itself this is fine. The animated feature Hero is Back played very fast and loose with the mythology and still managed to work well. Chow’s version did something similar, by taking familiar names and reworking them to tell his own story. Journey to the West has enough content in its 2,000+ pages to pick at and reshape. So why does this version feel so strange and lifeless?
It might have something to do with the lack of investment that the audience is bound to feel. The Monkey King’s biggest foible is the way it treats its characters, rushing through exposition to get the audience up to speed with as little effort as possible. As a result, we have a mess of characters it’s hard to give a damn about. The Jade Emperor is something of a kinder being in this version, very accepting of Wukong, but he loses all personality in the process. The Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen) have more to them, but aren’t as gravitating in their presence. Donnie Yen puts in a tonne of effort as Wukong, and his physical performance is a blast (ignoring the infuriating high-pitched monkey voice) – and of course he really knows how to throw down in the film’s really fun fight scenes – but the script is so weak he doesn’t feel like a real person. I’d be just as invested in a puppet show.
Maybe the disconnect comes from the fact that it’s not really trying to tell a story, but rather is happy rehashing elements we already know from the book’s opening seven chapters (basically everything from Wukong’s birth to his imprisonment) and splicing in an original story about the Bull Demon King and his shady dealings with Erlang Shen (Peter Ho), who was an antagonist in the original story, sure, but never an outright villain. These new developments are as half-baked as the rest of the film, and so we’re left with a product that wants to use our knowledge of the source material to bolster our connection, while throwing half that shit out the window. Combine this with the rather confusing opening that does nothing to establish characters or stakes, and, well … at least it looks interesting.
That’s the best way to describe the visuals. Interesting. The CG is just that: a style that wouldn’t fly at all in the west but does surprisingly well overseas. The CG works for this magical, high-concept setting and it’s all very imaginative but it’s also really easy to feel entirely detached from any of it. Even the comedic over the top shenanigans of Stephen Chow’s version was kept grounded with real locations and environments. I’ll give Cheang Pou-soi props for trying to depict the otherworldly beauty of Heaven to the best of his abilities but … it just all feels so fake and that really detracts from the point of it all. The Monkey King rushes through its story for cool action sequences and then wraps it all up in endless obvious green screen locations. Ultimately it’s a Journey to the West film that looks cool but is so shallow and only barely scratches the surface of what makes the original story so endearing.
It expects you to have enough knowledge of the book to know what’s happening, but be willing to accept this wild retelling. Without having seen any of the other films or read any previous material, there’s no way to be invested in any of it. Within ten minutes of meeting Monkey, he runs off to train with Subhuti, then comes back, defeats a rock thing and vanishes again to get weapons for his brothers. There’s no time to let any of it sink in. And every other scene is something to do with the Bull Demon King and … argh, it’s all such a mess. It’s a fun mess, I’ll concede, but it’s still a mess. Like its titular character, it barrels chaotically forward until it finds itself trapped, hoping for redemption when Tang Sanzang appears. Will the sequels fare any better? Let’s hope so.
Verdict: Flashy but completely void of substance, The Monkey King isn’t the worst movie, but it definitely fails more than it succeeds.
Overall entertainment: 5/10
Stuff happening: Loads
Closeness to source material: 2/5
Weapons delivery: Giant tentacles are the way forward
Monkey sounds: Just shriek a lot. That’s the same, right?
Writers: Why do these movies always need so many writers?
The Monkey King (2014)
Also known as: 西游记之大闹天宫, Dà Nào Tiān Gōng
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Writers: Wu Cheng’en (novel) Szeto Kam-Yuen, Edmond Wong, Lola Huo, Dali Chen (screenplay)
Donnie Yen – Sun Wukong
Chow Yun-fat – the Jade Emperor
Aaron Kwok – Bull Demon King
Joe Chen – Princess Iron Fan
Peter Ho – Erlang Shen
Kelly Chen – Guan Yin
Zhang Zilin – Nuwa
Gigi Leung – Chang’e
Xia Zitong – Ruxue the Nine-tailed Vixen
Louis Fan – Juling Shen
Eddie Cheung – Li Jing
Calvin Cheng – Nezha
Him Law – Muzha
Hai Yitian – Subhuti