Needlessly serious, this reimagining of Sun Wukong’s origin isn’t what I would call good, but it’s a blast to watch nonetheless.
“Do you know who I am?”
Sometimes I wonder why I’ve bothered to read The Journey to the West in preparation for watching these movies. Sure, there are some which might select a handful of chapters and attempt to adapt them, but a lot of others are happy just sort of vaguely taking some characters or ideas presented in the book and doing their own thing with it. In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike the countless versions of Sherlock Holmes we see about: only a handful really try to show us on screen the events as recounted in the source material.
While making your own story isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and often might be needed to avoid adaptation repetition – there’s a fundamental rule that needs to be followed. Your new version doesn’t need to be accurate, but it needs to be true. If your Holmes or Wukong or whoever isn’t recognisable as that character, then can it even be a considered an adaptation? OK I’m definitely overthinking this, and all for the sake of Derek Kwok’s largely forgettable, though not necessarily terrible version.
Wu Kong is very happy doing its own thing, and it’s hard to fault it too hard for trying something new. The film stars Eddie Peng as the titular monkey, and is a sort of retelling of the circumstances that led up to his revolt against the gods. In this version however, he seeks revenge against the heavens after they destroy Mount Huaguo during battle with some unnamed giant demon. This Wukong faces off against Erlang Shen (Shawn Yue) early, and even fights Zhu Baijie (Oho Ou) pre-exile from heaven, under his original name of Tianpeng – though unless you know who that is, it’s largely just a meaningless name. He is quickly defeated, and given the golden fillet from original character Azi (Ni Ni), and after some shenanigans he, Azi, Erlang, Tianpeng and bumbling guard Juan Lian (Qiao Shan) find themselves powerless and on earth.
There, they find a village on Mount Huaguo that is being terrorised by a wind demon, and team up to fight him. There’s actually a fun twist here, to see Erlang and Wukong team up to defend the mountain when, at some point during Monkey’s westward journey, Erlang is the one to burn and raze it to the ground. In fact, Erlang is one of the brighter spots in an otherwise fairly bleak and often tedious film. Fleshing out his backstory might feel a touch trite, but he’s such an interesting character that honestly it’s about time someone tried to do something with him. His begrudging friendship with Wukong, his inevitable heel turn, and eventual heroics are all convincingly sold to us by a script that seems to care about him more than its titular character.
Wukong, right down to its edgy name, is a film that feels more at home in the colour-muted, grimdark and angry world of Zack Snyder’s DCEU than it does in any Journey to the West canon. The costumes are bland, the heavens are a strikingly boring shade of slate and the weapons… actually the big dumb weapons do look pretty cool. Still, it’s a film that runs almost entirely on scowls, growls and loud assertions of one’s own name, and it can get quite tiring. The best part of the film is when everyone loses their powers and has to work together in order to defend the village. These moments give Wukong time to showcase other parts of his personality that aren’t just about murder.
Hell, I haven’t even talked about him and his name’s in the title. Eddie Peng plays the role about as well as the script allows him to. He injects a couple of moments of levity into his performance and occasionally the OG Wukong shines through, but more often than not it feels like screenwriter Jin Hezai decided that a Son Goku was just too whimsical for his screenplay and chose to make a Monkey King that was, for whatever reason, Vegeta. Nevertheless he does look pretty good, especially within the constraints of the movie’s semi-realistic visual style.
Despite all my moaning, I did like the story (in places), the wuxia combat, and the moments when characters are just hanging out. The final fights against at first Erlang, and then main villain Hua Ji (Faye Yu)’s enormous statue avatar are a blast. Seeing Wukong, tiny in comparison, lift his mountain-sized golden-hooped rod to smash it into her is exactly the sort of large-scale, visually impressive stuff I want in these films. Sure, Wu Kong is not Journey to the West by any stretch of the imagination, but its insistence on seriousness and brooding, Batman-esque dialogue only makes it all the more fun to watch. I’ve been bored by more faithful adaptations – so I’m glad that Wu Kong, for all its issues, was at least highly entertaining throughout.
Verdict: It’s entertaining enough, to be sure, but Wu Kong lacks the charm, quirkiness and human elements of its titular character, and as a result fails him almost completely.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Accuracy to the Journey: 1/10
Callbacks: The Havoc in Heaven opera that plays when Wukong returns is top notch
Giant canons and hundreds of crossbows: Can be built in a day, right?
Wu Kong (2017)
Also known as: 悟空传
Director: Derek Kwok
Writers: Derek Kwok, Jin Hezai
Eddie Peng – Sun Wukong
Ni Ni – Azi
Shawn Yue – Yang Jian/Erlang Shen
Oho Ou – Tian Peng
Zheng Shuang – Ah Yue
Qiao Shan – Juan Lian
Faye Yu – Hua Ji
Yang Di – Ju Ling
Quentin Zhang – White Robe Immortal
Linda Zhao – Girl