Sha Wujing isn’t even the main villain of his own chapter in the first of a new Journey to the West film series.
“It’s just a bald monk who speaks very naggingly.”
I’ve talked a fair amount of smack about Sha Wujing, the third (technically fourth?) and final disciple and bodyguard of Tang Sangzang. By the time he’s introduced properly to our heroes, they’ve already had a tonne of adventures and the reader has had more time to connect with them. The poor sand demon can’t catch a break. First he’s whipped 800 times, cast out of heaven and forced to live in a river of quicksand (maybe? The translations are murky about what the river actually is) because he broke a vase, and then he’s relegated to carrying everyone’s luggage for a hundred thousand miles. So at least when films adapt chapter 22, the one where Sha Wujing gets to throw down as a villain before he joins the crew, it gives him an opportunity to shine. Except in Monkey King and the City of Demons, that is.
While this movie is largely an original story, it seems to take place during that chapter, which mostly involves Monkey fighting Sha Wujing for a bit until he allows them passage and then joins the team. Things are a bit different this time around: As is typical of the formula, City of Demons starts out with Tang Sangzang (Zhao Donghao) being kidnapped by some underground sand demon. This time, it’s through some trickery designed to get the monk out of a circle of protection created by Wukong. But there’s a twist here: the demon doesn’t want to eat Sangzang to gain his immortality or anything, but instead is trying to lure Wukong so he can kill him and steal his heart.
As Wukong (Chan Ho-man) and Bajie (Lam Tze-chung) soon find out, the sands conceal the titular “city” of demons, a large village which is the home to a number of passive and nonviolent demons who once used to be flowers. They immediately take a liking to our heroes, especially their queen (Fan Meng). The demons explain that the town supposedly was once vibrant with life, but tragedy struck. Egged on by her advisor, the queen is made to believe that taking Wukong’s heart will bring life back to the desert, though she is torn in her decision. Meanwhile, Sangzang is hanging out underground, spending most of his talking back to the demon boss who kidnapped him in the first place.
City of Demons is the first of a new series of Journey to the West movies, and seem almost like a competitor to the more popular Monkey King series. Its first impressions is that it made a better case for itself than the first of its rival series, even if it looks distinctly lower budget and more amateurish. It’s trying hard to be its own thing – a difficult trick to pull off in this oversaturated market – by playing around with our heroes’ personalities. Tang isn’t the dense, naïve crybaby he is often shown as. He’s kind, and can’t resist helping those who need it but he also has a confidence in himself, his journey and his companions which is fun to watch. It’s kind of weird to see him throw out lines that wouldn’t be out of place coming from Ryan Reynolds, but the dry humour serves this iteration well.
Wukong is less jovial than the monk here, and Chan Ho-man plays him more like a cop who’s only days away from retirement. His sense of good and evil are as strong as ever, but he has less time for games and is more than happy to just dispose of his enemies as quickly as possible. There’s no transforming into flies for shenanigans with this Monkey. If it can be bashed with the staff, that’s what he’ll do. Lastly, adding to refreshing nature of the characters is the queen, whose internal conflict between helping her people and killing Wukong is actually really engaging. It’s a level of conflict you never expect to see in Journey to the West villains, and I appreciate the movie for trying to do something interesting and squeezing a little bit of pathos out of it.
I value the film’s commitment to giving us a new story, because the rest of the movie isn’t exactly worth writing home about. It treats itself as a comedy, and is admittedly much better for it even if it gets a bit tonally confused at times. It isn’t funny by any stretch of the imagination but the comedy energy is a jolt of life in a world where even the silliest adaptations get a bit too serious for their own good. It’s funny what you can forgive in a film when you know it’s just having fun. As for some of the lesser elements: the acting is fine, the soundtrack is fairly generic and the editing during the action scenes is absolute horseshit, with clips being spliced and cut with little to no sense of shot continuity. It’s like they had some good concepts and decent stunt performers, but the footage itself is just messy, especially considering how neat the rest of the film looks.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Sha Wujing (Wang Hongqian) once since the first two paragraphs. Because despite this being adapted from his one good chapter, he doesn’t get to do a damn thing the entire movie. It should be him who kidnaps the Tang monk and has to fight Wukong at the end. But nope. It’s this (admittedly really cool-looking) generic demon, and Wujing just sort of shows up once or twice to do absolutely nothing. Somehow the team behind City of Demons was able to make this guy even less relevant than he usually is. Talk about not catching a break. But hey, they’ve since released two other films in the series and if flowers can grow in the desert, then anything’s possible.
Verdict: Monkey King and the City of Demons shows signs of a promising new series, with some engaging ideas and its tongue in its cheek.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Heart: Obviously on the left. Where else would it be?
Final fight: God, they just get uglier and uglier, don’t they
Kid: Actually cute and watchable. There’s a first
Bajie: Stop flirting. It’s super rapey and it’s making everyone uncomfortable
The tragedy of wearing green facepaint: it gets all over your robes
Monkey King and the City of Demons (2018)
Also known as: ‘齐天大圣·万妖之城, Million Demons City
Directors: Hesheng Xiang, Qiuliang Xiang
Writers: Hesheng Xiang, Qiuliang Xiang
Chan Ho-man – Sun Wukong
Lam Tze-chung – Zhu Bajie
Fan Meng – Xiaoman
Ziluo Zhao – Monk Tang
Felix Lok – Demon Catcher
Wang Hongqian – Sha Wujing
Ivelyn Lee – Pearl