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On paper, everything about The Monkey King screams blockbuster. It's an adaptation of Journey To The West, the classic Chinese novel which tells the hugely-beloved tale of a daring, gifted monkey who falls from the heavens and must find his way back again. It stars three of Chinese cinema's most familiar and respected faces: Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-Fat and Aaron Kwok. Hollywood talents have been recruited to oversee the make-up and special effects for the film. In theory, this is a film to get enormously excited about.
In practice, everything about The Monkey King screams travesty. The movie is remarkably faithful to some elements of the novel, and deviates tragically in others. All three stars are hamstrung in their roles, forced to play the fool or brood anti-heroically in place of a script that actually gives them something real and meaty to do. The CGI is mostly awful, and the make-up/costumes almost laughably amateurish. Brew all those mistakes together, and director Cheang Pou-Soi has really mucked it up big-time.
The film opens with an epic war in the heavens, one that results in the goddess Nüwa having to sacrifice herself to rebuild the celestial palace of the Jade Emperor (Chow). Monkey (Yen) is one of the vestiges of Nüwa's grace, cast down to the mortal realm and trapped in a mountain. Monkey's fate, so it seems, can bring peace or chaos; his own mischievous personality balanced between good and evil. As he trains with a pack of human disciples who mock him for being more simian than they are, Monkey picks up skills, weapons, and a monumental ego. Soon, he establishes himself as the King of Huaguo Mountain, where he lives with his obedient flock of monkeys. But, under the manipulative influence of the Bull Demon King (Kwok), Monkey soon finds himself returning to the heavenly palace to wreak havoc beyond anyone's worst nightmares.
Journey To The West is, truly, a marvellous source of material for a film adaptation: it's morally rich, thematically complex and spiritually enlightening, with huge helpings of adventure, fantasy and derring-do. The allegory, of course, is one that chimes with the Buddhist scriptures: the hubris of Monkey doubles as that of humankind, the notion that we believe ourselves to be somehow greater and more important than we are, that we can rail against the heavens and win. Monkey's journey is one of humility and, eventually, enlightenment.
Almost miraculously, The Monkey King - which focuses on Monkey's fall from grace, a mix of his own arrogance and the demonic lies he unfortunately chooses to believe - wastes almost every iota of the novel's magic and potential. The script is dreadful, blundering from scene to scene with little care for continuity or character development. It dutifully checks off each stage of Monkey's rebellion against the Jade Emperor - from anointing himself the Great Sage Equal To Heaven to, briefly, becoming the divine horsekeeper and later eating forbidden celestial peaches - but fails to connect any of them in a meaningful way. In fact, it shambles about so much that it becomes unintentionally funny.
You might think that the three actors holding up the film might salvage it in some way. They do, and they don't, largely because the terrible script prevents them from doing much good. Yen manages to be charismatically cheeky as Monkey, even though he seems to think that acting like a monkey involves blinking a lot and very fast. He gets approximately one scene to tumble through the air with his trademark acrobatic grace, after which he's submerged beneath a maelstrom of CGI and wirework. Kwok has been set to dark, brooding mode, which he does quite well, but he never really bothers to snap out of it. Chow, with his blue contact lenses, is the only one who seems to be in on the joke, twinkling his way through scenes that require him to throw off extraneous lines of dialogue or float unconscious in mid-air.
It's hard to shake the feeling, too, that most of the film's budget went to securing the services of Yen, Kwok and Chow. The other actors seem to have wandered in from a grade-school production of Journey To The West, dressed in costumes they might as well have made themselves. Peter Ho, in particular, is hilariously bad as Er Lang Shen, the devious celestial deity who has it in for Monkey. Through much of his unfortunately considerable screen-time, Ho looks permanently constipated. Cameos from the likes of pop singers Kelly Chen and Gigi Leung - the former plays Guan Yin, Goddess Of Mercy, and the latter the immortal moon-dwelling Chang'E - add to the generally trippy effect of the film.
The special effects are, on the whole, terrible: a lot of the time, the film feels like a creaky albeit well-intentioned television adaptation from the 1970s, which is unfortunate given the forty intervening years of technological development. Everything is green-screened within an inch of its life, and almost all of it feels awfully fake. Some moments are nicely-rendered, but those are soon forgotten beneath the deluge of psychedelic Buddhas and sparkly goddesses. Leave us not forget the costumes, which look as if they were picked up from a store dumping its unwanted Halloween stock.
If you can suffer through the first two-thirds of the film, The Monkey King actually seems to find its feet in its final half-hour. The action beats have a genuine snap of tension and the drama is rounded out by a welcome touch of comedy. It's still a surreal and not altogether well- put-together mess, but it's a great deal more effective in a narrative sense. Too bad it comes about an hour after the audience has run out of doubt from which the film can benefit.