With the flood of Monkey King film adaptations in recent and coming years, it is refreshing to see one attempting a radical spin: Wang Baoqiang’s directorial debut Buddies in India transposes the myth to nowadays, following an agile and mischievous monkey trainer called, of course, Wu Kong (Wang Baoqiang) who refuses to sell his house to make way for a vast urban construction project. As Tang Zong, the chairman of the group in charge of the project, feels his end is near after a serious heart attack, he instructs his son Tang Sen (Bai Ke), a lonely geek, to go get his will in Nandu Gaun, India. At the same time, he asks Wu Kong to accompany Sen as a bodyguard, in exchange for which his house will remain untouched. Wu agrees, and the two set off for India, where they are helped by Zhu Tianpeng (Yue Yunpeng), cross paths with Wu Jing (Ada Liu), a woman once scorned by Sen, and are hunted by two Chinese assassins hired by Tang Sen’s devious uncle Chasu (Huang Bo), who wants to inherit the group instead of his nephew.
Though Buddies in India doesn’t closely mirror the narrative of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, it nevertheless constantly refers to it, from its central plot of going west for scriptures and the names and attributes of its main characters (Wu Kong and Tang Sen obviously, but also the porcine Zhu Tianpeng who directly evokes Zhu Bajie, and at some point even an Indian judge in a bull headdress recalling the Bull Demon), to fan-pleasing meta-references like a cameo by Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who played the Monkey King in the 1986 CCTV series Journey to the West. At its core however, it is equally derivative of Xu Zheng’s mega-success Lost in Thailand (2012), with its odd couple stranded in an exotic location, paroxysmal use of cultural stereotypes for comical effect, and saccharine ending.
The result is a film that is never boring, but has a numbing effect. It is directed with energy, but that energy is often hyperactive and repetitive, with too many scenes of running and screaming. There’s a measure of visual flair, but after all it is hard to produce a flat-looking film in an Indian setting. It is relentlessly lowbrow, with ample farting in faces and kicking of crotches. The action, by Sammo Hung disciple Guo Yong, is entertainingly outlandish, with a last-reel cameo by Yuen Bo, but too often amped up with fast motion. And while as an actor Wang Baoqiang displays his usual ‘love it or hate it’ mix of hyper-mugging and poignancy, his cohorts Bai Ke and Yue Yunpeng are painfully broad and unfunny. By cameoing as a slimy executive, Huang Bo reminds us that China has much better comedic talent to offer, while Ada Liu is sadly underused as a stunning fury with an inexplicable crush on Tang Sen.
Long Story Short: Energetic and entertaining but derivative and numbing, Buddies in India is an unusual but hopelessly lowbrow spin on the Monkey King myth. **