WU KONG (2017) review

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Based on a successful internet novel by Jin Hezai, Wu Kong is Derek Kwok’s second stab at the Monkey King myth (after co-directing Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons with Stephen Chow), on which it is supposed to offer a new take – a rather hollow claim given that the countless Monkey King adaptations of recent years have all had completely different narratives from one another. An origin story of sorts, it follows Sun Wukong (Eddie Peng), hungry for revenge after goddess Hua Ji (Faye Yu) had his beloved Mount Huaguo ravaged to punish a revolting demon. The Monkey enters the heavenly kingdom with plans to destroy the destiny astrolabe, a giant machine which preordains the fate of everyone on earth. There, he meets Azi (Ni Ni), daughter of his enemy Hua Ji, and is confronted by two immortals, Erlangshen (Shawn Yue) and Tianpeng (Oho Ou). After their fight takes them to earth, where their powers are ineffective, Wukong, Erlangshen and Tianpeng end up joining forces to help a small village on Mount Huaguo defeat a cloud demon. In the process, Wukong and Azi fall in love, Erlangshen finds a surrogate mother, and Tianpeng is reunited with Yue (Zheng Shuang), a long lost love. But soon, Hua Ji restores discipline with a bloodbath.

Despite offering a new spin on the Monkey King narrative, Wu Kong doesn’t really offer a new spin on the tropes of Chinese fantasy, falling in many of the same pitfalls as its predecessors in the genre. Such as, for instance, opening with a heavy chunk of exposition that drops names, tenets and events with a density that does little to properly set the stage or clarify the stakes. Or indulging in protracted superpower battles which keep making up their own rules as they go on. In terms of CGI however, it is definitely a step up on everything that has come before, including the modest top of the heap like The Monkey King 2 or League of Gods; physical sets and green-screen work are mostly excellent, and the aforementioned superpower battles are at least made palatable by the fact that they feature polished visual effects, and a thunderous score by Chu Wan Pin and Teddy Robin.

It is a film of three thirds, with a tiresome opening that feels rushed yet overwhelming, with endless fights which have unclear stakes. Then, the middle section on earth is more involving, and imbued with a welcome sense of whimsy, as Wukong and friends devise ways to lure and defeat a cloud demon, while bonding with one another and the villagers they’re helping. After which it’s back to heaven and superpower battles, though with clearer emotional stakes and tragic feel that is often quite effective. It is tempting to see this story of rebellion against preordained destiny and an oppressive goddess as a metaphor of Hong Kong’s retrocession and relationship to the Chinese government; especially when, during an attack of the goddess Hua Ji on the small village on Mount Huaguo, a character deploys a mechanical umbrella.

The cast is the film’s main strength, with each character radiantly embodied. Eddie Peng is simply one of the best incarnations of the Monkey King: impish yet tragic, boyish yet brutal, whimsical yet single-minded, we would love him to return to the role. Ni Ni has less to chew on with her character, but she is as effortlessly charming and moving as ever, while Faye Yu is a charismatic, regal villain. Playing the film’s most nuanced – yet slightly underused – character, Shawn Yue does wonders: the once bland and pouty actor now has gravitas to spare. And Oho Ou easily holds his own next to his more established co-stars, again showing great promise as a an actor who can brood, charm and move with equal confidence. Too bad the lovely Zheng Shuang has little to do.

Long Story Short: Wu Kong is a visual treat carried by a great cast and wrapped around an interesting metaphor, though it falls into a few of the usual pitfalls of Chinese fantasy. ***

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