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In every respect better than its predecessor by a huge measure, 'The Monkey King 2' ushers in the Lunar Year of the Monkey in exuberant spirited fashion
With a movie like 'The Monkey King', the only way you could go with a sequel is up, so it really isn't that surprising that 'The Monkey King 2' is a few notches better than its predecessor. Yet the two years since the release of that dull and expensive CGI eyesore sees its helmer Soi Cheang find poise, imagination and inspiration to deliver a much more assured, entertaining, and engaging cinematic rendition of the legendary 'Journey to the West' story, bolstered in no small measure by an irrepressibly lively turn by Aaron Kwok replacing the original's Donnie Yen as the titular Sun Wukong and excellent CGI by no less than the folks behind 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit'.
Now that his origins are out of the way, this second chapter set 500 years after he was imprisoned by the Goddess of Mercy sees the young and ingenuous Tang Priest Xuanzang (Feng Shaofeng) free Wukong from under the clutches of the Five Elements Mountain after being pursued by a white tiger. Unbeknowst to Wukong, their encounter has in fact been predestined by the Goddess (Kelly Chen) herself, who has given Wukong the quest of protecting Xuanzang on his journey to retrieve some sacred scriptures. Unbeknownst to Wukong, two other characters have been given similar assignments one, the half-man half-pig Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang); and two, the Sand Demon Sha Wujing (Him Law) thus completing the quadfecta of characters most commonly associated with the classic story.
Opting wisely not to cover too much ground, a newly appointed quartet of screenwriters (including Ran Ping and Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi) instead pick a famous segment from Wu Cheng'en's classical novel to form the backbone for this film, that of Wukong defeating the White Boned Demon (or 白骨精). The latter has been terrorising the wealthy Silk Road Kingdom of Yun for years, but her latest target is Xuanzang, whose flesh she believes will help her gain immortality. Those familiar with the source novel will remember the famous 'three strikes' between Wukong and the White Boned Demon - first as a village girl, second as an elderly woman and third as an elderly man but rather than a literal adaptation, the writers have re-interpreted the text more broadly as a three-round fight between the Demon and Wukong, with the last reserved for an epic CGI-heavy battle that has the Demon transforming into a towering half-bodied skeleton.
Oh yes, that last sequence alone is probably the most breathtaking that we've seen in any Chinese film thus far, a combination of good old Hong Kong action-on-wirework and modern-day CGI to re-define the fantasy epic genre. In fact, Cheang seems to have adopted the template set by his Hollywood counterparts for this sequel, constructing his film as a compendium of thrilling action sequences with enough story, humour and character development to serve as narrative glue in between.
Replacing Yen as action director is none other than Sammo Hung, and the latter's penchant for showy, flamboyant moves over the former's more grounded style proves a surprisingly better fit for the genre. Seemingly relishing the opportunity to be disencumbered from the forces of gravity, Hung hardly keeps his characters feet on the ground, preferring instead to send them soaring up into the heights of heaven or circling in the air while battling each other or one another. In particular, Kwok's months of martial arts training to prepare for this role has paid off handsomely, rewarding him with a deft physicality to match his naturally buoyant personality.
Cheang has also obviously benefited from the experience of the previous film in working with effects-heavy sequences, such that the visuals here boast a dynamism which its predecessor often lacked. Equally, Cheang is a lot more at ease juggling comedy, drama and action, striking the right balance between lightness and sobriety and the result is a film that knows when to take itself seriously and when to just have fun. The humour is wacky and well-timed, not only from Wukong's cheekiness but also from Bajie's willingness to poke fun at his pigsy look; while the drama emphasises Wukong and Xuanzang's conflicting principles, the former who sees no need to show mercy to those who do evil and the latter who is a firm believer of mercy regardless.
As much as we hate to admit it, Kwok is a much better 'Monkey King' than Yen not only is he much more spirited than Yen ever was, Kwok is also a much more expressive actor, and even under layers of heavy makeup, one feels keenly his sense of playfulness, frustration, indignation, anger, and loyalty to Xuanzang. On the other hand, Gong Li is a much better villain than Kwok was as the Bull Demon King; like Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficient' or Charlize Theron in 'Snow White and the Huntsman', Gong Li exudes elegance and malice in equal measure, so much so that there is never any element of doubt why her two subjects and even the King of Yun Kingdom (Kris Phillips) tremble and quiver in her presence.
Even though it would have made sense for Cheang to step aside for another director to take his place after the embarrassing 2014 original, the choice to return Cheang to the helm is at the end a wise one, allowing this sequel to improve in every respect from story to character to action to drama and ultimately to CGI. No matter how opportunistic it may seem for this sequel to be released right smack at the beginning of the Lunar Year of the Monkey, 'The Monkey King 2' overcomes such cynicism by delivering crowd-pleasing four-quadrant entertainment in exuberant fashion. If it's fun and thrills you're looking for this New Year, it's fun and thrills you'll get.
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