Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Monkey King 2 (2016)


After watching The Monkey King I was very curious to see how the sequel played out. While I did enjoy the first film overall, it had a few detriments that kept me from getting completely pulled in. But this film actually picks up what I think is the most interesting part of the story, the actual Journey to the West. This stage of the journey gives Sun Wukong new allies and enemies to encounter. He progresses away from selfish actions and toward something more enlightened. At least that is the theory, let’s see if the sequel gets it right.


When we last left Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok) Buddha had trapped him inside a mountain. Five hundred years have passed and a young monk Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) releases Wukong in a bid to get away from a massive hungry tiger. Wukong bursts free and helps Sanzang with his tiger problem and even with a little dragon problem. Before Wukong can go his merry way, a golden circlet wraps around his head, and Sanzang has the power to make it tighten. Wukong is deeply offended by this, but it turns out that the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen) feels that Wukong must help Sanzang reach his final goal – to journey to the Thunder Monastery in the far west and obtain holy scriptures. If Wukong can keep Sanzang alive and help him reach the goal he will have atoned for his rampage in the previous film.

Wukong accepts his fate, and it’s a good thing too. Soon the pair run into a bizarre pig man named Bajie (Xiaoshenyang) and his simple minded but strong companion Sha (Him Law) who has the ability to turn into sand. At first these two are a nuisance, but they turn into trusty companions (except when Bajie lets his lust or his belly get the better of him). As the heroes travel they find themselves in a land gripped by a demonic menace. Lady White Bone (Gong Li) has been abducting children and using their essence to keep herself young and full of magic power. If she gets her claws on Sanzang she will be able to achieve immortality. Soon she weaves a dangerous set of traps for the companions. It climaxes in a battle of good against evil, selflessness against selfishness and Wukong flying around the screen and kicking all kinds of undead butt.

Good Points:
  • Kwok and Li are excellent in the roles
  • Christopher Young’s score is top notch
  • Location and sets are impressive

Bad Points:
  • The fast pace compromises character development
  • When the movie goes full CG spectacle it isn’t as engaging
  • Those not familiar with the story may be confused by certain motivations


In a lot of ways The Monkey King 2 improves on many of issues I had in the first film. The acting is more uniform all the way around. The sets, location shooting and costumes are all impressive. Gong Li makes for an alluring and diabolical antagonist. The quick pace keeps everything moving. But it also ends up sacrificing character development and some of the key moments have less weight and power because of it. Well worth checking out if you enjoyed the first film and are looking for a big budget spectacle.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

Oh it is ON!
I was first introduced to Journey to the West by a children’s picture book way back in 1989. My sister picked it up because she loves animals, and the picture of a monkey wielding a staff against a monster on the cover caught her attention. The book was actually part of a series that covered the entire saga of Sun Wukong. This book just explored Wukong’s encounter with the Yellow Robe Monster. We were fascinated by the monkey, his companions and the adventures they had while facing the demon. I don’t remember if it was the book or some other reason, but we called him The Golden Monkey.

We encountered Wukong a few years later at my grandmother’s house. She had a local station that showed Chinese programming. One day while we were flipping channels there was The Golden Monkey, his pig buddy and the monk – full live action and getting into all kinds of adventures. My grandmother was probably concerned that her grandkids were watching this bizarre looking and unsubtitled series (they must have had a marathon on, because we watched it for a few hours). My grandmother would ask me about it years later if we remembered that monkey man show in Chinese.

I’m not sure why these memories came back to me nearly a decade later, but they did. Now I had the internet at my disposal, so I was able to look up The Golden Monkey, find out he was in an ancient Chinese saga called Journey to the West and found out how influential the whole thing was. The series my sister and I caught was actually made in 1986 and is considered a classic of Chinese television.

"If you just shaved once in a while you'd look a
little less intimidating."
All this to say that The Monkey King 2 gets to the part of the story I find most interesting. It is the many trials of a heroic band as they cross the land to an objective. In this case, you could compare the saga of Journey to the West with Lord of the Rings. But the story of Sun Wukong and the monk Sanzang is rooted in Buddhist philosophy and teachings. It has much more in common with myth cycles and fables. Characters like Bajie the pig man are around to show how lust and gluttony are fast tracks to trouble. But Wukong and Sanzang themselves are characters that make mistakes and we learn that listening and tolerance are just as important as heroics and bravery.

Wukong is less overt in his exuberance in The Monkey King 2. Part of it comes down to Aaron Kwok’s performance. Donnie Yen played Wukong almost like a hyper and spoiled child, which fit that stage of the character. Kwok plays Wukong as more of a surly teenager. He wants his freedom but he’s tied to his “father” until the completion of the journey. So Wukong can be crabby, sulky and snarky. But he is still the fearless and strong warrior. He has the ability to see through most demon disguises and this does come in handy. Wukong’s knowledge and skill turn him into a kind of big brother figure to the two other protectors: Bajie and Sha. Kwok does a good job working all these elements into his performance, while including monkey like movements and facial expressions. It is a less overt performance, and the makeup has been changed so he looks much less creepy than the previous film. Kwok does a great job and it really helps the film.

She just loves essence of holy monk.
Opposing him is one of the most talented Chinese actresses, Gong Li. She steps into the role of one of the most memorable antagonists in Journey to the West: The White Bone Demon. She is at both seductive and disturbing. Li plays up the cool arrogance and the fierce desire of the character. But there is also a tragic element to White Bone Demon’s story that Li gets to explore too. There are some really great scenes between Li and Shaofeng when demon and monk discuss compassion. It makes for a different type of villain in the film compared to the ambitious demon Kwok played in the earlier film. While Li isn’t the only antagonist in The Monkey King 2 she is certainly the most memorable.

To be honest the whole cast really does a fine job. Xiaoshenyang and Law provide some genuine chuckles as the supporting heroes. Bajie is quite a character, vain of his pig looks, not particularly brave, and a bit greedy. Xiaoshenyang gives us all this personality in the first few minutes of meeting him and manages to make the Pig Man likable even if he is kind of creepy looking. Law plays the simple-minded sand-demon-monk well. He often takes instructions literally, and seems at a loss when Wukong isn’t around. But he’s loyal and brave to a fault, and you like the big lug even if he looks lost without a map for most of the film.

The lone monk? Not for long.
Shaofeng is very good in the role of Tang Sanzang the noble monk on the quest for the Holy Scriptures. In some ways it is a one-note character, all nobility and naiveté. But Shaofeng imbues the character with real feeling and compassion. This is key in his interactions with Wukong and White Bone Demon. As the film’s conflicts merge together it is that compassion that causes problems for the heroes. Shaofeng sells it and makes his actions at the end of the film resonate.

Visually the film is a big improvement over the previous one. The Monkey King 2 goes for more location and set based shooting. There are some big green screen moments, particularly the epic battle between Wukong and White Bone Demon. But in many cases the computer visuals are used to fill in around and behind the sets to give everything a larger scope. This film takes place on earth, so we get more location shooting as well, and this goes a long way to adding a bit of realism to the fantastic events playing out. You know right from the start when the giant white tiger attacks Sanzang, that the CG has improved a great deal. The tiger doesn’t look completely real, but it looks much better than some of the scenes in The Monkey King.

Maybe if you don't look at them, they go away.
Costumes and make-up are excellent as well. As I mentioned earlier, Sun Wukong looks a bit less uncanny in this film. Kwok’s more human performance helps, but he looks less simian in this film and less distracting. The makeup for Bajie is a bit too realistic looking at times, but it kind of fits that character. He keeps going on about how handsome he is, but that piggy face doesn’t convince. Then there are White Bone Demon’s three minions. Each is a female form fused with an animal: bat, snake and boar. The results are a fusion of creepy and sexy – just like their mistress.

Sound work is solid as well. The film has less huge epic moments of grandeur for sure. But instead we get more immersive sound effects as the heroes travel and encounter different climates, land and people. You feel the chill from that cold mountain wind at the end of the film for sure. The big battle scenes have plenty of power and punch as martial arts are deployed and magic is thrown about.

When it comes to the music the production team turned to Christopher Young to follow up on his wonderful score to The Monkey King 2. Much like the films, the score is a bit different from the previous one. There is a bit less bombast and more color in the score. There are new themes for nearly all the new characters, and they fit them very well. White Bone Demon has a creepy seductive theme. The two new monk companions have a light hearted but action oriented theme. Sanzang has a contemplative theme that edges into heartfelt to mirror his compassion. Even the white dragon horse has a bold theme of heroism. Not much of the old music is carried over in this new score. Sun Wukong’s theme gets modified a bit but has the same essential sound. It’s less brash this time, but still ready for action. One of my favorite tracks is the bat demon battle. Young uses echoing electric guitars in the track to mimic the echolocation as well as just make the music bad ass. As you can see Young really put thought into the score and its motifs and as a stand along listening experience the score is just as good as the first.

The White Bone Demon conducts Chris Young's score.
However it is used in the film kind of strangely. I doubt anyone not really familiar with the score outside of the film would even notice (so like 1% of the world’s sane population) but the score seems to be edited in wherever the editors felt it would work best. So you have some moments of the White Dragon Horse music when he isn’t even in the story yet. Or you have music from the Heaven against Hell battle from The Monkey King blasting during the final battle between Wukong and The White Bone Demon. You could explain that away as a mirror to the good vs evil battle in the first film, but Young wrote some really great action music for The Monkey King 2 that didn’t get used. What you hear in the film works fine, but I do wonder how much better it might have been if the score had been used as intended.

"I'm telling you get a cool hat. Chicks dig cool hats."
My biggest issues with the film center around the pacing and the fact that a much longer work is forced into a two-hour time frame. The pacing is brisk and that keeps everything engaging for sure. But at the same time some of the impacts between the characters would have great power on the viewer if we spent more time with them. One of the central conflicts of The Monkey King 2 is that people don’t listen to each other and always assume they know better than others. For this conflict to really work, we need to ensure the relationships are built up. So when characters feel betrayed by the other, we empathize. But things move so quickly we never see that camaraderie build up. One minute Sun Wukong and his two monk companions don’t trust each other. The next Bajie and Sha are talking about how much they look up to Wukong and how they are helpless without him. Wukong and Sanzang don’t start off on the right foot. The film spends a little more time building their relationship, but it isn’t quite enough to convince when they “betray” each other.

The film does assume you know the story well enough that you can fill in the blanks. While it isn’t as choppy as The Monkey King the film still jumps from event to event with very little down time. You feel like this was a longer story condensed down, and it makes you wonder what a careful and full telling of the story would be like.

Ready to smite more evil!
This isn’t enough to really hurt the enjoyment of the film. As a whole the script to The Monkey King 2 is much more fluid and links together better than the previous version. The use of multiple antagonists as well as the betrayal moment gives the characters plenty to deal with. The adventures and perils they face are varied and fun. The ending goes for huge scope, but handles it a bit better than the clunky battle in the previous film. I’m still not a fan of watching CG characters fighting other CG characters for minutes on end, but that is hardly a problem that only impacts these movies. I also like how the film goes for its visual style of big and bold and keeps to it. It feels like a mythical magical land but there is a bit more dirt and blood in this film, grounding it a bit more compared the colorful exuberance of the previous film.

The Monkey King 2 is well worth watching, especially if you enjoyed the previous film. But if you were like me, and found the first film lacking, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. The saga will conclude in The Monkey King 3, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the films conclude this particular Journey to the West.

"Who has a piggy snout, two thumbs and loves to dance?
This guy!"

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  1. So Wukong is a sort of Prince Hal in "King Henry IV Part I" (and "II"): a boisterous youthful carouser who disappoints his father as he knocks back drinks with Falstaff and other lowlifes in taverns, but who is brave in battle and one day will mature to become the noble and heroic Henry V.

  2. Heh heh, nice comparison. Pretty close - only in this case he is looking for spiritual enlightenment. Each stop on the journey brings him closer. Very mythic in that sense.