Director Soi Cheang easily found himself on more sturdier ground amid franchise efforts in 2016; While The Monkey King became a smashing success a few years earlier, there’s no question the film had its share of flaws that needed acknowledging per sequel intentions. The Monkey King 2 drew a slightly smaller return but nevertheless retained a stronger outing commercially, as well as critically and for a number of reasons, which makes his new third installation all the more rewarding.
Light on heavy-handed martial arts and substantive in splashy, stunning visuals, action, spectacle and riotous comedy, we return to the folkloric world of Wu Cheng’en’s ancient literary telling of Buddhist monk, Tang, and his iconic disciples led by our titular mythological hero, the incorrigible, yet brave and noble Wukong, played once again by Aaron Kwok. The film almost instantly propels you into a whirlwind adventure as calamity finds our journeying heroes crashlanding into a mysterious, safeguarded kingdom inhabited solely by women. What ensues is multi-angular tale of self-discovery through mystery, wonder, peril and heartbreak as Tang and the kingdom’s Queen struggle with their feelings and convictions in lieu of an epic battle that could determine the fate of the kingdom.
Actress Zanilia Zhao makes her entry into the trilogy as the Queen of Womanland next to Gigi Leung who plays Perceptor, the Queen’s caretaker since childbirth and strict overseer of the kingdom and its laws and penalties therein. Such is what lies ahead for our male quartet – Wukong, Tang, Baije and Sha Wujing – who are met with the might of an entire army upon their captivity and the potential penality of death.
The film never ceases to be anything short of light-hearted in its progress with actor Xiao Shenyang front and center as Baije, the shapeshifting pig demon of legend shepherding much of the film’s gags. Him Law reprises his role as fellow disciple Sha Wujing, a water demon who can command the ocean and doesn’t hugely stand out as anything else than a formidable muscle. His efforts to match the comedic fervor of his co-stars, while entertaining, are anything but memorable.
William Feng returns once more as the stoic monk bent on finding the ancient Scriptures to help bring mankind salvation. Love and nurturing are continual themes between Tang and the Queen and one that persists with at least several other characters in the film that ultimately brings things full circle.
Kwok has the title role down to a T as Wukong; The weight of the story falls largely on Tang which leaves Wukong’s presence more secondary, but never diminutive or immaterial. Point in fact, Wukong’s simplistic, youthful, sometimes coy approach to things brings plenty of charm and versatilty to his function as the cog that keeps the wheels of the franchise turning.
Perfect VFX-heavy cinema is hard to come by while it’s no real burden with this installation. Epic battles with various creatures and a gender-neutral River God – played by Taiwanese actress Lin Chi-Ling – comprise the film’s high-flying action sequences with largely solid visual effects that prove to be, much like the 2016 sequel, a cut above the first film, in addition to much of the scenic views which pop out with richness and allure in color and texture.
Emotive subtext adds magnanimously to the sympathetic bedrock of our characters with Tang being central to the film’s spiritual anchorage. The Monkey King 2 scribe Elvis Han’s screenplay proves staple for the consistency and sturdiness of Cheang’s rendition of the mythological saga, on top of a strong cast and a functioning and focused vision for such an ambitious production.
Inarguably, a fourth entry would suffice interested eyes should The Monkey King 3 meet its goals at the box office. Learning from its previous mistakes in order to form more linear, concrete narratives with noticeably more polished visual effects and production design have certainly helped this franchise find its footing, and as such, one hopes this saga will continue to bear further fruit and reap the rewards to come.