Movie Review: Monkey King 3 (2018)
Well, that took forever to end.
Were all the waterworks—and I mean the river kind—the result of the popularity of “The Mermaid” two years ago? Combine water and unrequited love and get bang-o box office? Did anyone suggest that it might not be the best use of our time? That it’s all part of a minor subplot between our lead character’s love interest’s fierce adviser, Chang’E (Gigi Leung), and a river god (or goddess), and has nothing to do with anything anyone cares about?
I’m not saying it’s easy to adapt a classic, much-beloved, 16th-century picaresque for the 21st century, but surely more fun can be had.
Womenland of Western Liang
For those who arrived late: “Journey to the West” is an episodic adventure tale about a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), traveling west to get scriptures to save the hedonistic east. He’s aided by three companions/disciples:
- Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), a half-pig creature
- Sha Wujing (Him Law), a blue-skinned water creature
- Sun Wukong, the all-powerful Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), who was born of divine crystals used to repair Heaven after a battle between the Bull Demon King and the Jade Emperor
They all call Sanzang “Master” (Shifu) but they’re the ones forever getting him out of trouble. The chapters on which “Monkey King 3” is based, #s 53-55, follow this trajectory: get into trouble, get out of it, move on.
In the original, via this translation, the four pass through Womenland of Western Liang, populated, yes, only by women. Most have never seen a man before. So how do they procreate? By drinking from the Motherhood River. That’s what two of our protagonists (Sanzang, Bajie) do by mistake. And Monkey King is sent to Miscarriage Spring in Childfree Cave to battle the immortals there and return with a cure to end their pregnancy.
In the next chapter, they go to the “Male-Welcoming Post Station” in order to pass through Womenland. But word gets out that Sanzang is the brother of the Emperor Tang, and the Queen wants to marry him for the power and because she’s, well, man-crazy—like all the women in Womenland. But before all of that can happen, Sanzang is stolen by a woman who turns out to be a demon-scorpion. It takes the disciples all of Chapter 55, and the deus-ex-machina help of the Bodhisattva, to rescue him.
That’s the original. What do you keep, what do you toss, how do you make a modern movie out of it?
They toss the scorpion woman. They make the potential nuptials between Sanzang and the Queen (Zhao Liying) less the result of power, expedience and/or lust than moon-eyed love. Believe it or not, they keep the Motherhood River. As with the nuptials, though, they soften it. Sanzang decides he can’t abort the baby, so Monkey King freezes everyone and makes the pregnant men drink the miscarriage water. Our hero remains moral and gets to continue the journey.
You know that line about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending toward justice? If we see the truth in it, and I do, it means earlier times were less moral, less just. You certainly get a sense of that in the original (or translated) text of “Journey to the West.” Everyone’s threatening to kill everyone; everyone laughs at the pain of others. When the men first alight into Womenland, they happen upon a house with older women, who tell our heroes the following:
“All of us in this family are getting on,” the old woman replied, “and desire doesn't bother us any more, which is why we didn't harm you. If you'd gone to another household with women of different ages, the younger ones would never have let you go. They'd have forced you to sleep with them, and if you'd refused they'd have murdered you and cut all the flesh off your bodies to put in perfume bags.”
And yes, the perfume bags were left out of “Monkey King 3,” too.
What they left in? Not worth much. The women in Womenland alternate between fierce Amazonian warriors and Chinese shopping-mall girls using sa jiao. We get two unrequited loves. We also get an entire scene of our heroes chasing after a mischievous missing parchment whose words hold the key to everything.
Meanwhile, you know who gets short shrift in “Monkey King 3”? Monkey King.
Seriously, I don’t know what director Cheang Pou-soi was thinking.
Down down down
So after the warriors capture our heroes a second time, Chang’E, worried about the Queen’s growing infatuation, sends Sanzang in a dinghy into the middle of the Sea of Sorrow—but not before the Queen rides past them and joins him. Was that her plan? Or was she not thinking? Because they wind up nearly dying out there. No one can find them, not even the Monkey King. But somehow—and I’ve already forgotten how—the four of them, and the Queen, wind up at the gateway on the other side of the Sea of Sorrow, where they can finally leave. Except the Queen can’t. There’s a forcefield around Womenland and it gets her, sickens her, and much of Womenland dies.
So they have to return. And she has to be revived. And then the river god arises and blah blah blah.
There’s 45 chapters to go, but I can’t imagine this series will continue much longer. The first movie got negative reviews but was still the No. 3 movie of 2014, grossing US$167 million. The second movie got better reviews and was the No. 4 movie of 2016, grossing $185. This one? Mostly negative reviews and it was the No. 4 movie. Of the weekend.
Not a good sign. Monkey King himself might not be able to save this franchise now.