Another year, another Monkey King movie. Last year alone, we already have not one but three cinematic incarnations of the famous Wu Cheng’en classic novel including Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, Wang Baoqiang’s Buddies in India and Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong. By now, the Monkey King movies has become oversaturated to the point I begin to wonder, why not give this oft-told story a rest already and make way for something fresh instead? Well, like it or not, here comes a brand new Monkey King movie to usher the Year of the Dog in 2018 with Soi Cheang’s second sequel, The Monkey King 3.
Here’s the story: The journey to the West for the scriptures continues in this third instalment of The Monkey King franchise, where Xuanzang (Feng Shaofeng) and his three disciples — Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok), Sha (Him Law) and Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) — accidentally entered the realm of the Womanland where no men are in sight.
Oversaturation aside, Soi Cheang’s Monkey King franchise has been fairly consistent in term of its quality. The 2014 version was surprisingly entertaining, thanks to Cheang’s energetic direction and Donnie Yen’s committed performance as Sun Wukong, even though the movie suffered from half-baked special effects and underwritten supporting characters. But the 2016 sequel marked an improvement over the original, with Aaron Kwok taking over Donnie Yen’s role as Sun Wukong while Soi Cheang infused his sequel with a subdued yet darker approach to the otherwise colourful fantasy-laden adventure. Now, in The Monkey King 3, Soi Cheang has again shifted the tone by focusing more on romance than a full-blown CGI-laden action fantasy.
Even Aaron Kwok’s Sun Wukong himself plays a second fiddle this time around, as he makes way for Feng Shaofeng’s Xuanzang to take centre stage for the bulk of the movie. But fans of Sun Wukong will likely be pleased that Kwok still gets a fair share of screentime in this third movie. At least, we still to see him engaged in the CGI-laden battle scenes, particularly during the climactic finale against Lin Chi-Ling’s River God water creature. Both Him Law and Xiao Shenyang, who played Wujing and Bajie respectively, are mostly reduced to random, yet fairly decent comic relief. As for the newcomer to the franchise, Zhao Liying is perfectly typecast as the naive queen of the Womanland, in which she also shares a bittersweet yet surprisingly affecting chemistry with Feng Shaofeng’s Xuanzang. Gigi Leung, nearly unrecognisable in a heavy make-up appearance, does a good job playing a no-nonsense preceptor who has a deep hatred for men.
Wen Ning’s screenplay, which focuses largely on the Womanland populated by women feels like the kind of plot we used to see during the glory days of Category III Hong Kong movies in the 90s. Besides, this is the movie where the women in Womanland who never experienced the comfort and love of men’s existence in their life. But everything changes when they finally encounter men for the first time upon the arrival of Xuanzang and his three disciples. Of course, The Monkey King 3 is far from a Category III movie. It’s just that the suggestive tone and feel of such genre immediately come to mind upon witnessing the way of the story is told.
Over the course of this nearly two-hour movie, Soi Cheang populated the third instalment of the Monkey King franchise with enough broad humour, even though some of the comedy aspects feel annoying. This is especially true during the whole segment involving a kiddy-voiced paper trying to make an escape. I have to admit the child-friendly tone all of the sudden feels awkwardly misplaced. But other times, Cheang’s tonal shift does work in his favour, particularly during the later sequence where the romance elements between Xuanzang and the queen of the Womanland grows progressively serious in tone.
Overall, The Monkey King 3 feels like a step-down from the improved first sequel. Despite its shortcomings, the third instalment of The Monkey King franchise remains a decent effort worth watching this Chinese New Year season. Here’s hoping the fourth chapter, which is already hinted towards the end of the movie, able to step up for the better.