THE MONKEY KING
THE LOST EMPIRE
The literary classic that Hallmark have turned to in the case of The Monkey King is Journey to the West, a classic tale that was written in China sometime in the 16th Century. The author is generally attributed to being Wu Cheng En. Journey to the West concerns a pilgrimage to India undertaken by the scholar Xuanzang to obtain some holy texts. (Interestingly, Xuanzang, whose name is often rendered into English as Tripitaka, was an actual historical scholar). Xuanzang is accompanied by several companions the mischievous trickster Monkey King, the half-human, half-porcine Pigsy and the loyal monk Friar Sand. Along the journey, they undergo various adventures and encounter fantastical creatures, before the companions ascend to Buddhahood at the end of the tale.
Adaptations of Journey to the West have been very popular in Asian countries, although the story is almost completely unknown in the West. Other versions include: the Japanese film Monkey Sun (1940); the Chinese animated Princess Iron Fan (1941); the Chinese film Princess Iron Fan (1941) based on a partial segment of the story; 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); director Jeffrey Laus two-part Hong Kong film A Chinese Odyssey Part 1: Pandoras Box (1994) and A Chinese Odyssey Part 2: Cinderella (1995) with Stephen Chow as Monkey; a Japanese anime tv series Monkey Magic (1998); the Hong Kong tv mini-series The Monkey King (2002); Jeffrey Laus remake of his earlier work A Chinese Tall Story (2005); a Japanese tv series Saiyuki (2006), which had one film spinoff with Saiyuki (2007); the Western-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);The Monkey King (2014) starring Donnie Yen and its sequels The Monkey King 2 (2016) and The Monkey King 3 (2018) with Aaron Kwok; and the Chinese animated Monkey King: The Hero is Back (2016). The most well known of these in the West was the Japanese tv series Monkey (1978-9), which attained a cult appeal for its gonzo exploits and kung fu scenes.
The Monkey King promisingly comes written by David Henry Hwang, the playwright who wrote the original play and movie version of David Cronenbergs gender deception film M. Butterfly (1993). Hallmark have handed direction over to Peter MacDonald, a former cinematographer and camera operator on various high-profile films. MacDonald made his directorial debut with Rambo III (1988) and has made various other films including Mo Money (1992), the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Legionnaire (1998) and The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave (2000). Not promisingly for The Monkey King, Peter MacDonalds only previous venture into fantasy was the embarrassingly bad The Neverending Story III (1994).
It is probably inevitable that any Western-made venture into a classic tale that is so popular and well loved in another culture is going to emerge as a disappointment that either crudely misunderstands or waters down the original for Western audiences. Indeed, to this extent, almost all of the Buddhist elements of the original tale have been excised from the mini-series. One of the most disappointing aspects is that The Monkey King is not an authentically Chinese production although it casts a number of Chinese American faces in the supporting cast, all the names on the other side of the camera are Caucasian while the role that is the equivalent of the scholar Xuanzang/Tripitaka is inhabited by the Western face of Thomas Gibson.
The most peculiar thing about The Monkey King is the way that the mini-series wraps Journey to the West into a bizarre meta-fictional framework in order to give it a contemporary relevance. (The same happened with The Forbidden Kingdom). In place of the scholar Xuanzang is Thomas Gibson as a modern-day academic specialising in Chinese literature who must venture into the world of the story in order to go on a quest that saves the story (and the world) from being destroyed. This requires the narrative to engage in all manner of peculiar meta-fictional contortions. To give a Western equivalent of this, imagine something as central to Western literature as the works of William Shakespeare substituted for Journey to the West. Were that the case we would have a story in which to wit: a contemporary scholar of Shakespearean literature is approached and told that the modern world is about to collapse because villains are attempting to erase all copies of Shakespeares works, necessitating that the scholar venture into a world where all of Shakespeares fiction is real where he is then joined by Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo, Prospero, Richard III et al on a journey to persuade Shakespeare himself not to abandon his works as worthless, lest this somehow (for reasons unclear) cause the modern world to be wound back in time to Elizabethan England. Such a description sounds completely bizarre and it should be regarded as no different when applied to a less familiar work of literature like Journey to the West.
Peter MacDonalds evocation of fantasy remains stolidly earthbound throughout. There is never any point that The Monkey King soars with imagination. Indeed, the mini-series sinks from the moment of Thomas Gibsons entry into the land where he must face a CGI tiger and dance across a series of pillars as fireballs rain down a sequence that fails to conjure anything approaching suspense or excitement, anything other than feeling that Gibson is reacting to a cheaply rendered CGI environment. There are some very poor CGI effects, including the sequence with the black dragons and especially when it comes to the three-headed snake that threatens Bai Ling after she is shrunken and placed in a jar. The only point that the sets attain any imagination is when we arrive at the Jade Emperors impressively scaled courtroom.
You can only think how much more fantastical a work The Monkey King might have been had it employed a Hong Kong director someone like Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tung, Andrew Lau or Cory Yuen. Hong Kong fantasy cinema is fired up with such fantastical visions that had even some of this been imported on The Monkey King, we might have had a mini-series that flew with genuine imagination. Even considered though, other Hallmark mini-series most notably the excellent Arabian Nights (2000) made the year before, which one senses that Hallmark are trying to replicate with The Monkey King have flown with a magic and there is no reason why this should not have either. However, The Monkey King never seems to be anything more than an adventure that takes place on a series of obvious sets and with cheap effects.
Furthermore, Peter MacDonald keeps putting colloquialisms into the mouths of the characters that frequently punctures the suspension of disbelief Let the human put it on the tab, Master Se Fung says Just kidding. The party arrive at a castle Its a resort for the rich and famous or cry out For Buddha and country as they head into battle. In one scene, Thomas Gibson is transformed into a fly and given the advice And whatever you do stay off the dog dooey. It is the same inane insertion of quick contemporary culture or colloquial jokes and references that totally wrecked MacDonalds The NeverEnding Story III.
Thomas Gibson of Chicago Hope (1994-2000), Dharma and Greg (1997-2004) and Criminal Minds (2005 ) fame is cast in the role of the scholar. Gibson is a handsome and likeable actor but The Monkey Kings failing is that Gibson is not a natural when it comes to these types of heroic roles. He is a more intellectual actor, rather than a physical heroic type and clearly seems uncomfortable in the setting as though aching to get back to contemporary or realistic surroundings.
Cast in the role of the Kwan Ying (or the bodhisattva Guan Yin in traditional Chinese legend, who becomes the goddess of luck here), is Bai Ling, a Chinese actress who has made an impressively ethereal presence on Western shores in roles in films like The Crow (1994), Dumplings (2004) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Bai Ling is an actress who does well when she gets to play mysterious and enigmatic but here is placed in a generic role that requires her to be no more than a standard love interest. On the other hand, American-born Chinese actor Russell Wong comes across with just the right natural charisma and irrepressible energy that you would expect of Monkey. It is a shame that he did not get to be the lead character rather than Thomas Gibson, where you could have been guaranteed he would have given the series a good deal more life.
Hallmarks other works of genre note are: the sf mini-series White Dwarf (1995), The Canterville Ghost (1996), Gullivers Travels (1996), Harvey (1996), the Christmas musical Mrs Santa Claus (1996), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1996), the childrens horror Shadow Zone: The Undead Express (1996), the medical thriller Terminal (1996), The Odyssey (1997), the cloning thriller The Third Twin (1997), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997), the monster movie Creature (1998), Merlin (1998), the sf film Virtual Obsession (1998), Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1999), Alice in Wonderland (1999), Animal Farm (1999), A Christmas Carol (1999), the tv series Farscape (1999-2003), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1999), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Magical Land of the Leprechauns (1999), Arabian Nights (2000), the modernised Hamlet (2000), Jason and the Argonauts (2000), Prince Charming (2000), the mini-series The 10th Kingdom (2000) set in an alternate world where fairy-tales are true, the medical thriller Acceptable Risk (2001), The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells (2001), Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001), My Life as a Fairytale: Hans Christian Andersen (2001), Snow White (2001), the series Tales from the Neverending Story (2001), the fantasy adventure Voyage of the Unicorn (2001), the Sherlock Holmes film The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire (2002), Dinotopia (2002), The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002), the Christmas film Mr St. Nick (2002), the Christmas film Santa Jr (2002), Snow Queen (2002), the modernised A Carol Christmas (2003), Children of Dune (2003), the American Indian legends mini-series Dreamkeeper (2003), the childrens monster film Monster Makers (2003), Angel in the Family (2004), A Christmas Carol (2004), Earthsea (2004), 5ive Days to Midnight (2004) about forewarning of the future, Frankenstein (2004), King Solomons Mines (2004), the Christmas film Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus (2004), Dinotopia: Quest for the Ruby Sunstone (2005), Hercules (2005), the thriller Icon (2005), Meet the Santas (2005), Mysterious Island (2005), the disaster mini-series Supernova (2005), The Curse of King Tuts Tomb (2006), the disaster mini-series The Final Days of Planet Earth (2006), Merlins Apprentice (2006), the bird flu disaster mini-series Pandemic (2006), the disaster mini-series 10:15 Apocalypse (2006), Black Swarm (2007), the psychic drama Carolina Moon (2007), the psychic drama Claire (2007) and the ghost story Something Beneath (2007).
Fan trailer here:-