In the third film, The Monkey King takes a back seat to the Tang Monk’s matters of the heart.
“Don’t look at my master so amorously!”
For the past three years I’ve spent January watching adaptations of Journey to the West. At first, this was just because I happened to start reading it one December, but ever since this has been because Journey and January kind of sound similar and can be portmanteau’d together nicely. Anyway, I’ve seen a lot of versions of this book now and despite all of the differences between them, they’ve all (with the exception of Stephen Chow’s Conquering the Demons)had one key similarity: the primary character is pretty much always Sun Wukong.
I get it – he’s the most interesting character and ostensibly the coolest. His fun-loving, cheeky attitude and immortality-gaining shenanigans are why the book spends its opening chapters on him instead of anyone else. It doesn’t help that Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie are basically comic relief 90% of the time. But we still don’t get a lot of stuff focusing on what should be the story’s primary protagonist: Tang Sangzang, or Tripitaka depending on your translation. This is largely because the monk is one of the most ludicrously useless heroes ever put to paper. Almost every time he’s faced with danger the book makes a point about how he just throws his hands in the air and weeps about how it’s all over until Monkey and his buddies save the day. Chow made a valiant attempt to fix this, but his movies are original stories so he’s at liberty to do whatever he wants. However, in 2018, director Cheang Pou-soi returned to the epic with the third in his series of movies and actually tried to give Sangzang his due.
Feng Shaofeng, Aaron Kwok, Xiaoshenyang and Him Law all return from the previous film as Sangzang, Wukong, Bajie and Wujing respectively. Now the party’s formed and the inter-group drama has been dealt with, they’re continuing their journey westwards until an encounter with a sea monster hurls them towards the mysterious Womanlands – a society not unlike the greek Amazons – led by the unnamed Queen (Zhao Liying). Finding themselves trapped, they learn that the only way to escape this place is by breaching a particular gate after finding love. For a group of devout Buddhists (including Bajie, who mourns having to give up women for the quest), this seems impossible. But when romance develops Sangzang and the Queen and his feelings cause him to reconsider everything, the entire mission is put in jeopardy.
The first thing I noticed while watching The Monkey King 3 was in how streamlined the opening was. After countless movies explaining the gang’s connections, their origins and their endless bickering it was refreshing to get a film that didn’t bother with any of it and instead just got to the main story. I’ve had my issues with this particular series, but by having it go on for more than one or two films means we don’t need to waste time establishing things we all already know. So the group get into one silly action scene, and suddenly find themselves in the woman country.
Interestingly, that’s when things sort of stop dead in their tracks. Based roughly on the events of chapters 53-55, The Monkey King 3 is less interested in demons and martial arts (there are maybe 2 big fight scenes in the whole film?) and more on the budding romance between Sangzang and the Queen. That’s not inherently bad. Changing tone and genre slightly allows for a series to stay fresh, and the focus on Buddhist values and how Sangzang and Monkey interpret them is actually quite good. The romance has some good moments, but after baffling everyone with a bit about pregnancy rivers and abortion water (it makes just as much sense in the novel), the film chooses to spend its time on this tedious soap opera romance, which has potential but never delivers on either stakes or chemistry.
This could have been the best of the three, mixing moments of comedy, actual reflections on the meaning behind the titular journey and a few highly engaging battle with lots of moving pieces. Even when it comes dangerously close to making commentary on abortion it’s trying to do something – in this case give Wukong more agency in the progression of their mission. Seeing him take on this responsibility (while keeping his fun-loving side intact) is a good choice, and Aaron Kwok plays both sides really well. His makeup and the rest of the costumes here are among some of my favourites of recent Journey adaptations. They have the slight fakeness that always comes with these kinds of fantasy productions, but it’s expected. I love how Sha Wujing looks here, as well, which is praise I don’t normally have. It seems most productions spend their makeup budget on pig and monkey costumes, which leaves the poor dude with little other than a skull necklace most of the time.
I do wish it had been just more coherent or, if not, just show us more of the heroes hanging out. Those scenes are the highlights and while that’s all well and good, it sucks that the Queen and her entire community of women don’t get nearly the screen time or relevance that they should, often being relegated to reactionary roles which… well, kind of defeats the purpose of having such a big cast of female performers. Wonder Woman this is not. The romance is easily the most disappointing part of the movie and that sucks because it’s also the main driving force of the drama and the crux of the film’s conflict. Thematically it works: giving Tripitaka a crisis of this magnitude only does his character favours. For once he isn’t entirely reduced to blubbing and bumbling, and gets a say in the way his story goes. Temptation, loss of faith and inner turmoil make for refreshing struggles in a franchise where most of the problems can be solved by Monkey waving his big stick about.
Verdict: Without a real villain to move things along, Monkey King 3 has to rely on drama. If only its two central figures weren’t so boring.
Overall entertainment: 7-ish/10
Violence: Not remotely enough/10
Sex: Not remotely enough/10
Being an ugly man: Well, that’s double the sin
Girl at the cliff: Who could it be?!
Junior-style male pregnancy jokes: Maybe one. I commend their restraint.
Awkward song montages: 2. But they’re both the same song.
The Monkey King 3 (2018)
Also known as: 西游记女儿国 (Xī yóu jì nǚ’ér guó), lit. Journey to the West: Daughter of the Country
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Writers: Wu Cheng’en (novel), Wen Ning
Aaron Kwok – Sun Wukong
Feng Shaofeng – Tang Sanzang
Zhao Liying – Queen of the Womenlands
Xiaoshenyang – Zhu Bajie
Him Law – Sha Wujing
Lin Chi-ling – Hebo
Gigi Leung – Advisor