Okay, so they are on a bit of a detour. Somehow, on their pilgrimage to the West, Xuanzang and his demigod disciples (Sun “Monkey King” Wukong, Zhu “Pigsy” Bajie, and Sha “Sandy” Wujing) found themselves whisked into a kingdom of Amazon warriors, where men are strictly prohibited on pain of death. Maybe there is a bit of a Wonder Woman influence there, but Wukong is still the one with all the cool superpowers. He is a veritable Superman, but he cannot save his master from the dangers of love in Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King 3 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Who would’ve thought blow-dried Cantopop star turned actor Aaron Kwok would become the definitive Monkey King, but there is no doubt he has made the iconic character his own. As a result, it is a tad bit frustrating he plays a supporting role in the third film in the series that bears his name. Wukong can handle just about anything flesh and blood, but even he flounders against the aquatic River God monster, so Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy send the band of pilgrims through a wormhole into Womanland.
When Xuanzang locks eyes on “The Queen,” mounted on her enchanted stag, it is love at first sight. However, rules are rules, so the Preceptor insists on executing the fab four, just like any other mangy dog excuse for a man. However, the Queen is intrigued and reluctant to comply, which leads to complications. The simian demigod keeps his eyes on the prize: those scriptures waiting to be rediscovered in India, but his master learns to appreciate love from a whole new perspective. Just in case you were worried, there is also some unfinished business with the kaiju-like River God from before.
The previous Monkey King was a fantastical wuxia delight because of Gong Li’s wonderfully seductive and sinister élan as White Bone Spirit. Nobody can touch the hem of her scaly serpentine garments this time around, but Gigi Leung distinguishes the film in a different way. As the Preceptor, she starts out as Cruella de Vil, but she evolves into a tragically romantic figure of noble sacrifice.
Once again, Kwok looks like he is having a blast with his monkey mannerisms—and his enthusiasm is contagious. He might not be as true to nature, but in terms of energy and conviction, he is up there with Terry Notary in The Square. As Xuanzang, William Feng is supposed to be sort of placidly dopey in a Zenned out kind of way, which he duly is. However, Zanilia Zhao quite endearing and even rathe poignant as the star-crossed Queen.
Compared to the previous bang-zoom film, Monkey King 3 is a little light on the action until the third act. However, it is still entertaining to watch Kwok do his monkey thing. Also, Cheang and screenwriter Wen Ning do some interesting fantastical world building. As crazy as it gets, it still takes its Buddhism seriously, which is refreshing. Weirdly, it might just be the most Valentines-appropriate film of the week. Recommended for Monkey King/Journey to the West fans, The Monkey King 3 opens this Friday (2/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.