OK, now this is better.
“Monk, the human world is like hell since long ago. Even the Buddha cannot extinguish human’s evil within. Can you?”
Last year I had a look at the commercially massive but otherwise lacklustre movie The Monkey King, which starred Donnie Yen as the title character and an all-star cast as familiar characters from The Journey to the West. I didn’t really like it. The film was bombastic, shallow and seemed to want it both ways – expecting you to understand the story it was based off while also completely changing up its narrative. It was a visual wild ride that ultimately meant nothing, but was successful enough to spawn two sequels. Suffice it to say that I did not have high hopes going into this.
Cheang Pou-soi is one of only two returning names from the first film, the other being Kelly Chen in a cameo as Guanyin, but this restructure works very much in the movie’s favour. Aaron Kwok does come back, having played the Demon Bull King previously, but here he replaces Donnie Yen as Sun Wukong. Promisingly, the seemingly endless list of writers from the original is reduced to a single name, Ran Ping and almost as if by coincidence, the film doesn’t feel nearly as choppy and all over the place.
Set 500 years after the 2014 film, the movie adapts a number of chapters from the book and shows us the monk Tang Sangzang (Feng Shaofeng) freeing Wukong, meeting Zhu Bajie (Xiaoshenyang) and Sha Wujing (Him Law), and the party encountering the cruel White Bone Demon (Gong Li), who shares the same plan as everyone else in this world: eat the monk to gain immortality (this is such a common thing that there’s not one but two villains with this plan here). The plot is super simple – at least compared to the scope of its predecessor – and this allows for the story to delve into the personality traits of the characters that we see in the book. Tang is naïve but steadfast in his beliefs, and Aaron Kwok brings a sort of angry loyalty to his role, switching things up from Donnie Yen’s fun but sometimes one-note performance.
Often, a good sequel to a bad film is cursed by the simple fact that the first movie is necessary viewing, making it less likely to be watched just by association. However, considering how none of the main cast from The Monkey King returns and the story is set 500 years in the future, it’s possible (and even recommended) to watch just this one as if it were standalone. Here, director Cheang has learnt to reel himself back a bit and allows for a more muted and more realistic colour palette, as well as plenty more real sets and locations. It’s possible his work on the gritty SPL II helped ground this one a bit, as we get a lot more character work, depth and even a fair amount of Buddhist philosophy: Tang’s belief that anyone can find redemption and peace through Buddha is tested constantly, and becomes the struggle that defines the entire plot.
So it’s a shame, really, that its third act is so messy and loud. Look, I get it. It’s a big blockbuster and the finale should have some sort of epic battle, but Sun Wukong leaping around battling a gigantic sort-of Dashadokuro feels kind of empty compared to what Tang is going through. It’s a big, climactic 3D fight scene for the sake of it and … well, at least it’s still reined in compared to the 2014 film, with CG that stops shy of actually blinding you, even if it is entirely pointless. In fact, despite being action directed by Sammo Hung, the fights in this movie are surprisingly dull and lifeless, feeling more like video game quicktime events than anything else. Thankfully they don’t completely engulf the movie, and as a result the story is allowed to breathe.
What writer Ran Ping has done here is find the core driving forces behind both Sun Wukong and Tang Sangzang and is able to find the areas where they both clash. So when they argue over Wukong killing an innocent old lady (secretly the bone devil), it’s less because Tang is dumb and overly trusting of random strangers like in the novel (though it is a bit), and more because he feels that redemption is key and everyone is allowed a shot at it. Wukong meanwhile tries to do his best for his master, but the constant reminders that he’s under the monk’s control (including a great visual of him watching a performing monkey on the streets) irks him to the point that he wants nothing more than to lash out. Because of these developments, the other two leads get sidelined a bit, although they still get their fair share of moments – and seeing Wujin and Bajie both throw down against an army of undead was pretty great too.
So overall, it’s difficult to judge The Monkey King 2 simply because compared to the first film it’s so much better in almost every respect. It still suffers from the flaws that come from wanting to be a big, New Year’s action film and could have done with a fewer pointless scenes, such as the b-plot with the cursed king. But it’s a marked step up in quality in this franchise, filled with fun prosthetics (honestly my favourite parts of any of these adaptations) and takes the themes in the book seriously enough to give its story weight. Tang believes that demons are worthy of salvation, as well as his own crew, Monkey King included so it’s only fair to consider The Monkey King 2 with the same patience and hope, and it actually mostly paid off. There’s a second sequel to this and while I’d like to think the upwards trajectory of the series will continue, it probably won’t. But what’s a Journey to the West without a few bumps?
Verdict: Cheang Pou-soi learns from the many mistakes of The Monkey King to give us a seriously improved, if still flawed, sequel.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Sex: Some pseudo-nude demon suits/10
Faithfulness: A shocking 6.5/10
Boss fight: Meh
Genuine laughs: Seeing Bajie in Wukong’s armour
Dragon horse: They actually acknowledged him!
The Monkey King 2 (2016)
Also known as: 西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Writer: Ran Ping
Aaron Kwok – Sun Wukong
Gong Li – Baigujing, the White Bone Demon
Feng Shaofeng – Tang Sanzang
Xiaoshenyang – Zhu Bajie
Him Law – Sha Wujing
Fei Xiang – The king of Yun Hai Xi
Kelly Chen – Guanyin