Movie Review: The Monkey King (2014)
Well, at least I learned the origin of the Monkey King. Otherwise, this thing was painful.
Is it even possible to tell this story to westerners? I think you have to grow up with it. Although apparently the movie took its critical hits in China, too. It did well at the box office—No. 3 movie for the year—but there was grousing. Replacements were made.
But it's even worse for moviegoers outside of China. Here, for example, is IMDb’s synopsis:
A monkey born from heavenly stone acquires supernatural powers and must battle the armies of both gods and demons to find his place in the heavens.
That ain’t quite it. You ready?
OK. So the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) attacks Heaven but is beaten back the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), who is about to kill the upstart when Jade's beautiful sister (and the Bull Demon King’s lover) pleads for his life. So Jade simply banishes the dude to Earth.
Meanwhile, with most of Heaven destroyed, the Goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin, Miss World 2007) turns her body into crystals to rebuild it. One of those crystals lands on Mount Huaguo and becomes a monkey in a bubble, who, for a second, bonds with a fox/girl, before her paw is burned.
You still with me?
Cut to: Several years later. Monkey (now Donnie Yen, “Ip Man,” “Rogue One”) is an annoying, chattery thing, who, after grabbing after a butterfly, falls a great distance. He survives, the butterfly does not. This saddens him. So when Master Puti (Hai Yitian), one of the Ten Great Sāvakas of Gotama Buddha, brings the butterfly back to life, Monkey wants to learn the trick and agrees to be his student. Puti gives Monkey a name: Sun Wukong.
Sun is a quick study, gets into it with other students, but eventually the Master spirits him away, shows him a bit of his future, then let him to return to Mount Huaguo, where the other monkeys—all of whom, including an oddly long-nosed one, look like extras on a bizarre British children's show—are amazed at his new powers. But what if he leaves them? Won’t they be defenseless? So Wukong visits an underground kingdom and takes everything the Dragon King throws at him. He winds up with: 1) a suit of armor, 2) weapons for the monkeys, and 3) a new staff. But he causes a massive tidal wave in the process, the Dragon King complains to Heaven, and the Jade Emperor sends a guard, Nezha, to arrest him. They battle. And then...
Wait, by this point, Wukong has reunited with fox girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong), who’s been sent there by the Bull Demon King; and it’s BDK who kills Nezha, earning Wukong’s gratitude. BDK also tells him he belongs in Heaven. Monkey King is intrigued, but he mostly wants to learn about immortality because he doesn’t want Ruxue and the monkeys to die. That’s why he goes.
In Heaven, the Jade Emperor is amused by him and makes him a stable boy; everyone else is less amused, sees him as impertinent, and fights him. Much shape-shifting occurs. No one is who they seem. But after battling through hell (almost literally—a molten fiery place), Monkey King returns home ... to find all of the monkeys and Ruxue slaughtered. He went away to find immortality for them but in doing so sealed their fate. Worse, they are killed because of him. Bull Demon King tells him it was the soldiers of Heaven who did it, and MK buys it, and, enraged, attacks Heaven; but of course it was BDK who did the killing so Monkey would do his bidding.
Cue big final battle.
- Master Puti is killed by BDK
- BDK is turned into an actual one-eared bull by the Jade Emperor
- The Monkey King, as punishment, is buried under the Five-Finger Mountain for 500 years. Or until “Monkey King 2.”
All of this insanity is exacerbated by the bad CGI and a lousy lead performance from Donnie Yen. Sorry. Love him. But he’s not the right dude to play Monkey.
The hero with one face
So what does it all mean? Fuck if I know.
The entire movie is really preamble. “The Monkey King” is the first part of the great 16th-century classic of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West,” which contains four parts and 100 chapters, and whose ostensible protagonist, Tang Sanzang, hasn’t even been introduced yet. “West,” whose truncated, translated version is called “The Adventures of Monkey,” is an episodic adventure story about Tang, a young Buddhist scholar traveling west to bring back scriptures, and encountering various evils along the way. His traveling companions include Monkey King, a half-pig creature and a river ogre. The evils they encounter include spider-women. This story has been made into paintings, plays, movies. Over and over again.
But in the original preamble, Monkey King falls from grace because of hubris, not because he’s tricked into attacking Heaven. I guess modern China, like modern Hollywood, wants its obvious heroes and villains. The hero is always the hero, even when he's in the middle of his hero's journey. Joseph Campbell is turning over in his grave. Or smiling wistfully.