THE MONKEY KING
(Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong)
The Monkey King is a new version of the Monkey King legend. (It notedly came out eleven months after the Stephen Chow Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013), which it should be noted portrayed the Monkey King as an altogether more sinister figure). It comes out amid the great renaissance in lush, well-produced Wu Xia cinema that has been produced by China in the late 2000s, following successes such as Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The Chinese Wu Xia films of the 2000s and beyond have been cautious and occasionally inventive about leaping aboard the CGI bandwagon but The Monkey King does so with alacrity to the extent that it emerges as something akin to a flying swordsman fantasy film reimagined by way of Avatar (2009).
It is an amazingly colourful world that the film creates, filled with images of the casually fantastic and all seemingly designed for the 3D camera this is a film where, for instance, people seem to fly more so than they ever walk. Little of the film takes place in the real world, almost every set is a digital one with backgrounds seemingly airbrushed and colours saturated to resemble something akin to classical Chinese religious ornamentation that drips with the most exquisite golds, reds and blues. The opening moments alone spill over with visions of armies in a vast phalanx in the sky being blown apart, dragon transformations and battles between gods and demons. The most colourful sequence is the visit to the underwater realm of the Dragon King, which is filled with crab ministers, girls wearing oyster shells, giant octopi and all manner of sea life. The film builds to a colossal climactic battle filled with combatants throwing about power blasts, massive energy discharges and fighting in mid-air in between flying chunks of masonry as Heaven is blown apart, with the Jade Emperor changed into a dragon, the Bull Demon King battling while transformed into a creature of smoke and Sun Wukong into a giant ape that resembles King Kong. It is all rather enjoyable eye candy.
In terms of the elements of Journey to the West it focuses on, this version fairly closely follows the plot of The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven (1965). The major addition is the character of Aaron Kwok as the Bull Demon King whose machinations and desire to usurp the throne of Heaven provide much of the plot impetus. Donnie Yen, his pretty HK matinee idol looks unrecognisable behind full makeup as the Monkey King, gives us a spiritedly perky and mischievous performance.
Other adaptations of Journey to the West and the tales of the Monkey King include:- the Japanese film Monkey Sun (1940); the Chinese animated Princess Iron Fan (1941); the Japanese film Songoku: The Road to the West/The Adventures of Sun Wu Hung (1959); the Japanese anime Alakazam the Great (1961); the Chinese animated film The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven (1965), which is the best adaptation of the story to date; a trilogy of live-action films from Hong Kongs Shaw Brothers Monkey Goes West (1966), Princess Iron Fan (1966) and The Cave of the Silken Web (1967); the popular the Japanese tv series Monkey (1978-9); a South Korean tv series Journey to the West (1982); a Japanese tv series Journey to the West (1993); a Japanese anime tv series Monkey Magic (1998); the US tv mini-series The Monkey King/The Lost Empire (2001) starring Thomas Gibson; the Hong Kong tv mini-series The Monkey King (2002); Jeffrey Laus A Chinese Tall Story (2005); a Japanese tv series Saiyuki (2006), which had one film spinoff with Saiyuki (2007); the US-made Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom (2008); the modernised Emperor Visits the Hell (2012); Stephen Chows Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) and its sequel Journey to the West: Demon Chapter (2017); and the Chinese animated Monkey King: The Hero is Back (2015).