CGI-heavy blockbusters from China, Hong Kong, India, or any other Asian countries for that matter – except for maybe Japan and South Korea – have always been hit-and-miss affairs.
Despite scoring US$168mil in China alone, there’s no denying that 2014’s The Monkey King was plagued by cheap-looking and even just plain bad CGI and visual effects, not to mention a slapdash narrative that barely made sense despite being based on something as familiar as Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel Journey To The West.
Returning to the director’s seat for this sequel, up-and-coming genre whiz Soi Cheang (of cult hits like Motorway, Accident and Dog Bite Dog) again directs this one without any of the cool edge and personality that made him so beloved by Hong Kong genre fans across the globe, but makes amends for the many sins of The Monkey King.
Probably because The Monkey King 2 concentrates on the more familiar chapters in Journey To The West, scriptwriters Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi have kept things simple, linear and relatable, concentrating on the push and pull between the personalities of main characters Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King (Aaron Kwok, taking over from Donnie Yen) and young monk Xuanzang (William Feng), to generate drama and emotion.
After 500 years of imprisonment beneath Five Element Mountain, Wukong is accidentally freed by Xuanzang and is then tasked by the Goddess Guanyin (Kelly Chen) to escort the monk on his journey West to retrieve some ancient sutras.
The impetuous, impulsive Wukong and calm, benevolent Xuanzang’s contrasting personalities are severely tested when Wukong’s “kill first, ask questions later” approach and Xuanzang’s “enlighten instead of killing” philosophy clash almost every step of the way as they meet all kinds of demons, dangers and challenges.
Also joining them on their journey are Wujing (Chung Him Law) and the gluttonous, horny half-man/half-pig Baije (Xiao Shenyang). Because this sequel is obviously set on Earth instead of the heavenly settings of the first movie, the use of real locations here helps immeasurably in making the CGI and VFX look much better and more believable.
There’s even an obvious attempt to make the fantastical imagery slightly less Chinese and more Western-friendly, with one of the kingdoms they visit looking more like something out of The Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones rather than Legend Of Zu.
This is even more apparent in their approach to the villain of the piece, the White Bone Spirit Baigujing, played by a radiant and show-stealing Gong Li, whose outfits and character design will no doubt evoke memories of Angelina Jolie in Maleficent and Charlize Theron in Snow White & The Huntsman. Even her back story echoes that of Maleficent, in which an innocent young woman is driven to evil because of others’ wrongdoings.
Soi Cheang even gets the humour right this time, thanks to the absurd combination of Aaron Kwok’s slightly more macho approach to playing Wukong and the general monkey business that monkeys get up to, not to mention Baije’s antics whenever he comes across women and food (yes, in that order).
Ultimately though, these are still very minor updates to a story that’s been told countless times, and it certainly doesn’t come anywhere near the bold approach of crowd favorites like Jeff Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey movies or even last year’s animated hit The Monkey King: Hero Is Back.
But as a Chinese New Year holiday blockbuster to bring the whole family to, it’s done more than well enough to do even better at the box-office than The Monkey King. It is, after all, the better movie, and definitely an entertaining and enthusiastic enough welcome to the Year of the Monkey.
The Monkey King 2
Director: Soi Cheang
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, William Feng, Xiao Shenyang, Chung Him Law, Kelly Chen