THE MONKEY KING 3 (2018) review

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Though Monkey King films – and fantasy films in general – have been produced with remarkable regularity in China in the past six years, few have managed to spawn a franchise, let alone a trilogy. And if we don’t count Jeff Lau’s belated – and dire – A Chinese Odyssey Part III, then Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 bears the distinction of completing the first artistically unified (Soi directed all three films) big screen Chinese fantasy trilogy based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. After a dodgy franchise starter in 2014 that benefited from Donnie Yen’s impressively athletic dedication to portraying a young monkey but sank under the weight of its interminable and poorly-rendered power battles, and a sequel in 2016 that was a marked improvement and was made memorable by Gong Li’s powerhouse White Bone Demon, here comes the third installment, with all the key cast members returning, except for Kelly Chen, who has been replaced in her customary cameo as Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy by Liu Tao – not that too many people will notice.

And so monk Xuanzang (William Feng) and his cohorts the Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), Wujing (Him Law) and Zhubajie (Xiao Shenyang) are journeying to the West, when an encounter with a mighty river god (Lin Chi Ling) catapults them into a land populated only with women. Xuanzang and the queen of this land (Zhao Liying) fall in love, but men are not welcome, and the queen’s protector and adviser (Gigi Leung) – and actual ruler of this land – sees the four males as part of an ancient prophecy heralding the end of her people. She has them imprisoned, to be executed the next day. But the queen is determined to help them.

A refreshing aspect of Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King trilogy, is that it doesn’t repeat itself much: all three films belong to a different subgenre of fantasy. The first one was cosmic fantasy, mostly taking place in heaven and involving gods and demons. The second one was horror fantasy, with nods to Ray Harryhausen and a general taste for the macabre. Now, The Monkey King 3 is a full-blown fantasy romance, exploring the love between monk Xuanzang and the queen of the Land of Women. The former’s vows and calling forbid him from experiencing a woman’s love, having chosen to love of all mankind instead, while the latter’s people consider men destructive monsters, and procreate through a spring’s magic water. Both wrestle agonizingly – and at times affectingly – with the contradictions of their love, making this installment the least action-packed of the franchise, a bold choice when it comes to the third film in a blockbuster franchise: save for a quick and gratuitous fight with two big scorpions, one hour and thirty minutes go by before a big battle erupts.

This is not a flaw in itself, but it seems to indicate the film’s budget was smaller than for the previous film: key CGI is often lacking, from the characters’ inclusion to green-screen background, to some shoddy water rendering and creature animation (the queen’s white deer and the river goddess are jerky, unconvincing creations). But the sparser action also underlines that Sun Wukong has become a supporting character: he gets no arc throughout the film, and the aforementioned action scenes are his only occasions to take center stage, with Wujing and Zhubajie getting even less meaningful screen time. This shift in scale and in focus is another factor – in addition to the shift in genre – that makes The Monkey King 3 more successful as an episode than as a stand-alone film.

Comedy is far from absent, and surprisingly contains much of the film’s darkness, despite the vibrant costumes, flowery sets and bright cinematography: there’s a bracing sense of the grotesque to seeing Sun Wukong decapitate himself to throw off his interrogator, or having to obtain the tears of a cross-dressing hermit to abort the flash-pregnancy of his companions after they’ve drunk by accident from the fertility spring. Though sidelined as mentioned before, Aaron Kwok is once again a refreshingly low-key Monkey King, while William Feng reflects his character’s inherent passiveness by shining only in reaction to either Kwok or Zhao Liying, who – with her soulful eyes – single-handedly makes the doomed relationship one to care about.

Gigi Leung initially appears like a cut-rate Helena Bonham-Carter as the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, but then becomes quite affecting, as the heart-rending choice her character has had to make is revealed. Him Law and Xiao Shenyang are mere window-dressing this time, while Lin Chi Ling’s performance is overshadowed by the unconvincing CGI water her character is constantly swathed in. The previous two films benefited immensely from monumental scores by Christopher Young, but this time he’s been replaced by Yu Kobayashi, whose music, while serviceable, pales in comparison. The Monkey King 4, set to tell the Fire Mountain episode of Journey to the West, would do well to call back Young.

Long Story Short: More successful as an episode in Soi Cheang’s ambitious telling of the Journey to the West than as a stand-alone film, The Monkey King 3 feels scaled-down from the previous installments, but is at times affecting and at times bracingly grotesque. **1/2

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