Movie Review: The Monkey King 2 (2016)
Once again, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), a devout Buddhist monk, travels west to find scriptures to bring back to the hedonistic east, and once again he’s accompanied on this perilous journey by Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), the half-pig creature; Wujing (Him Law), the water/celestial creature; and most important and powerful of all, Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok), the Monkey King, who is given to mischievousness and bursts of anger and violence. Oh, and once again their main nemeses are sexy women/demons, led by Baigujing, the White Bone Spirit (international actress Gong Li), who wants to eat Xuanshang to attain immortality. Because that’s how you do it in the east. Fountains of youth, schmountains of youth. It’s all about monks.
I keep saying “once again” because all of this is from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” which is invariably translated into English as “The Adventures of Monkey.” It’s as widely known in China as “Don Quixote” in Spain, or “The Wizard of Oz” here, and it shares qualities with each. I still have a copy of the book from my days in Taiwan. (Mouse over movie poster to see.) I never got around to reading it.
But I’ve seen versions before. Last spring, the Seattle International Film Festival showed two of them: the 1927 silent film “Cave of the Silken Web,” and its 1967 Shaw Brothers remake, in which the sexy women/demons are in reality giant spiders. Since this is “Monkey King 2,” I figured we would be past this part.
Nope. We haven't even gotten there yet.
Freed to be trapped
The first movie, which set opening box office records in China in 2014, focused on chapters 1-7 of “Journey,” in which we get the origins of Wukong, who, at the end, is trapped under a mountain for 500 years.
This one picks up as Tang Sanzang begins his journey. He’s quickly abandoned by his two human disciples after a giant tiger threatens them. Sanzang flees into a cave—the same cave, it turns out, where the Monkey King is trapped. When Sanzang releases him, the Monkey King is free again! Well, yes and no. He’s trapped, in a sense, by the Goddess—think Glynda, or a Deus Ex Machina—who ensures that a journey is taken, friends found, lessons learned; who ensures, in other words, that we get a story.
Meanwhile, further west, children are being kidnapped by the White Bone Spirit and never seen again. Except she’s not really doing the kidnapping; the king is, and he’s using the blood of the children, held in small cages, to stave off a crippling disease. Not that the White Bone Spirit is all good, mind you. She still kills humans to stay young. She also tries to trap Sanzang so she can eat him. Gong Li is great in the role: all whispery, sexy insinuation. When she moves through the air, her long dark dress billows behind her as if they were steps she had taken. They’re like building blocks that then go poof. It’s a great effect—eclipsed only by Gong Li herself, who, at 50, looks 20 years younger. A steady diet of devout monks perhaps?
The chief conflict throughout the journey is the Monkey King’s ability to see danger and kill it, and Sanzang’s inability to see the same danger and his constant admonition against killing.
So is Sanzang devout or naïve? Or both? And will the way he punishes the Monkey King (constricting a gold band around his head via Buddhist chants) cause the Monkey King to rebel against him? Also, how do you end the story if not by killing the villain?
Actually, that’s my favorite thing about “The Monkey King 2.”
There’s the usual big final battle, in which the White Bone Spirit brings to life an army of skeletons surrounding her palace (think: “Jason and the Argonauts”), and when these are shattered and defeated by our heroes, the remnants swirl into one giant skeleton (think: “The Mummy”), which tries to get Sanzang. But Monkey King defeats it and her. The White Bone Spirit is in the process of dying, and her spirit will never be reborn. Victory!
Except the movie actually lives up to the precepts of its protagonist. Instead of revenge and killing, we get forgiveness and sacrifice. Sanzang, our hero, knowing he will be reincarnated, sacrifices himself so that the White Bone Spirit, who was once human, can be reincarnated, too; so her spirit can live on. Sanzang’s physical body turns to stone, and in the end it’s carried on the back of the Monkey King, who, with Bajie and Wujing, continue the journey.
How cool is that?
The rest of the movie is just CGI swirls. For me, “The Monkey King 2” is most interesting for being what western movies are not.