The Nature of Monkey
One thing that people who talk knowledgeably about the film industry seem to agree on is that Asia is, in some way, the future. It’s a massive new market just crying out to be (ruthlessly exploited) integrated into standard models of commerce, which may be why there’s a bit of a tendency for American blockbusters to avoid including things which may annoy Asian audiences (hence all the Chinese stuff in the novel of World War Z getting cut from the film), or, conversely, Asian characters and situations being subtly or not-so-subtly inserted into those same big movies.
Whether anyone has considered the possibility of the Asian film industry trying to take a slice of the Western market is another question. Asian films do have a following in the west, but it’s usually strongly tied to particular genres and individual film-makers. Nevertheless, a crack at the British market was recently (and unexpectedly) taken, in the bizarre form of Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King 2, a bona fide Chinese action-fantasy blockbuster, made in 3D no less. (I’m not aware that The Monkey King 1 ever made it to UK multiplexes, only increasing the weirdness of this event.)
Can we get even weirder? Well, yes: Monkey King 2 didn’t even seem to get a certificate from the BBFC, resulting in it showing unclassified (‘Cert TBC’) at the sweetshop for the one week it was on. This is all very peculiar; perhaps even as peculiar as the film itself.
The film is based on one of the most famous and well-loved legends in Asian folklore, derived (extremely loosely) from the story of how Buddhism was brought to China: the story Journey to the West, originally written by Wu Cheng'en in the 16th century. It almost goes without saying that most of the currency this tale enjoys in the UK is a result of the BBC buying the rights to the insane Japanese TV adaptation of the story, Saiyuki (retitled simply Monkey), which originally aired in the early 80s over here.
To anyone who's ever seen an episode of Monkey, much of The Monkey King 2 is unsurprisingly familiar. Despatched to bring the Buddhist sutras from India to China, the unyieldingly pious monk Tang Sanzang (possibly better known to the likes of us as Tripitaka, but played by Feng Shaofeng either way) finds himself all alone and menaced in the wilderness. However, he happens upon the irrepressible Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), who has been imprisoned under a mountain for ages following his rebellion against the Emperor of Heaven, and for widdling on Buddha's fingers too.
Tang Sanzang releases the Monkey King, who promises to devote his ceaseless energy and golden wishing-staff to keeping the holy man in one piece during the trip. Pretty soon they pick up two other supernatural disciples, the greedy and self-regarding swine-spirit Pigsy (Xiaoshenyang), and the reformed water-monster Sandy (Him Law), and the great journey begins...
Inescapably fond of Monkey as I am, need I even tell you that I only went to see The Monkey King 2 because, inexplicably, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't showing in Oxford, and there was literally nothing else on that particularly interested me? I have to confess that it was mainly curiosity to see what a Chinese-style blockbuster actually looked like that lured me into the cinema in the first place.
And what does it look like? Um, well. If this film genuinely represents what Chinese audiences are gagging for, then I can only assume that they have many fewer problems with CGI, because the whole film is slathered in it (the fact that it's 3D CGI doesn't exactly make it less obvious). Not for one moment does this film ever attempt to be conventionally naturalistic, but then why should it? Monkey spirits with golden staves fight mountain-levelling battles with demons and monsters, armies of skeletons surge across the screen, gods and goddesses discuss theology and metaphysics with each other. The closest analogue to this kind of story in western cinema, I suspect, is a movie like Jason and the Argonauts, where gods and mortals participate in larger-than-life adventures with each other (the skeleton army here may be an intentional homage to Ray Harryhausen), but the stories roots in a different culture mean even this is not a close parallel. (Having said that, I couldn't help noticing a few moments where this movie is clearly influenced by Marvel Studios' output in particular: Iron Man and Thor have made their mark in the Middle Kingdom.)
Matters aren't helped much by a set of English subtitles seemingly provided by liberal use of Google Translate, with a corresponding preponderance of duff grammar and bafflingly unintelligible dialogue (when you consider the climax of the film revolves around some slightly abstruse points of Buddhist theology you will see why this could prove difficult). On the other hand, the basic thrust of the story (Monkey falls out with the others for apparently being too quick to anger and is unfairly punished; as a consequence of this the others get in trouble courtesy of the bad guy Monkey was the first one to spot, and he has to come back and rescue them all) should be very familiar to anyone who knows this particular story.
Watching the opening credits for Monkey King 2 I had a brief moment of gratification when I saw the action-director duties were going to be carried out by none other than the kung fu legend Sammo Hung Kam-bo, someone else who for whom I have a great deal of affection. However, the problem with this film is that the CGI and wire-work is so all-pervading that you don't really need a choreographer of Hung's stature to do the fights – most of the action is orchestrated within a computer or an editing program anyway. Everyone is constantly flying around or disappearing or turning into a wild animal, so the amount of genuine, conventional martial arts on display is minimal.
So in the end this film isn't much more than a weird curiosity, although a visually lavish one in a heftless, artificial way. The story isn't totally unfamiliar to a western audience, and western films are certainly a source for this one in some respects, but the sheer number of ways in which you are reminded that this is a product of a different culture and sensibility just keep stacking up until it's impossible to totally engage with the film simply as a story. This film isn't like anything else that's likely to get a release in UK multiplexes this year, and in some way that's a good thing, but I have to say the chances of Chinese movies making serious inroads into western markets seem very small for the time being.