Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
A wellspring of Chinese culture, Journey to the West has inspired untold movies, including this three-part series named after the rascally Monkey King. More a detour than an upgrade, The Monkey King 3 will coast to box-office success in Asian markets largely on the reputation of the last action-filled entry.
Picking up from the previous films, The Monkey King 3 finds monk Xuanzang (William Feng) continuing his quest to locate scriptures in Thunder Monastery that will set mankind free from the cycle of death and rebirth. Accompanying him are the blue desert god, or sand demon, Wujing (Him Law); Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), a shape-shifting pig god; and Wukong (Aaron Kwok), the Monkey King himself, a trouble-making martial-arts expert.
An encounter with an androgynous river god sends the travelers into Womanland, a hidden kingdom ruled by an innocent Queen (Zanilia Zhao), but run by a strict Preceptor (pop star Gigi Leung). She’s warned the Queen that men are the most venomous creatures in the world and must be killed.
Smitten by Xuanzang, the Queen tries to rescue him from death. The problem is the men can’t leave Womanland until they pass through a gate that can only be opened by love. And Xuanzang has dedicated himself to saving the world, not falling in love.
Soi Cheang, who has directed all three films, has a grand visual style and a knack for ensemble scenes. Brightly lit by cinematographer Richard Bluck, The Monkey King 3 is a treat to watch, especially Lee Pik-Kwan’s gorgeous costumes. But it’s a chore to sit through. Plotting is basic and repetitive, action is limited and special effects are often disappointing.
Elvis Man’s screenplay has some amusing digressions, including unexpected pregnancies, a “Miscarriage Cave” and giant scorpions guarding a walking, talking piece of paper. Unfortunately, the male gods, even the Monkey King, have very little to do. Zhao’s Queen simpers too much, and Feng’s monk, dressed up a like a chess piece, never raises his voice above a whisper. It’s up to the spectacular Leung to bring some drama to the project.
For stateside viewers, The Monkey King 3 intersects weirdly with Hollywood fantasies, with allusions to everything from The Lord of the Rings to Wonder Woman and The Shape of Water. Soi Cheang’s simplistic take on the source novel may guarantee a certain level of commercial success. But as Stephen Chow proved, Journey to the West can offer viewers much more.
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–This article originally appeared on Film Journal.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)