Sunday, November 19, 2017

Wu Kong (2017)

Director: Derek Kwok
Notable Cast: Eddie Peng, Ni Ni, Shawn Yue, Oho Ou, Zheng Shuang, Faye Yu Fei-Hong, Quao Shan, Yang Di, Wang De-shun, Quentin Zhang, Zhang Yi-Qian

The recent explosion of various Monkey King films from China’s film industry can be a bit overwhelming to keep straight. It’s not that there hasn’t always been an obsession with the Monkey King (and Journey to the West) stories in the market, but lately it seems even more intense. Animated films and two major franchises have seen releases in the last handful of years, so when a potential new franchise was announced for the character it was a bit yawn inducing. The Monkey King franchise covered the family friendly aspects of the character for his mischievous adventures and Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West films covered the more traditional stories nicely and with plenty of pizzazz in blending comedy, action, and heart. So what could the latest film Wu Kong, directed by Derek Kwok and starring A-lister Eddie Peng as the titular Monkey King, really bring to the table? As it turns out, much more than expected. Based on a popular online novel, Wu Kong forgoes the traditional dynamics of the Journey to the West story and goes for more of an origin of the character and the result is actually quite impressive. It’s executed in striking fashion and the film takes a more humane and emotional bent for the character that’s much more adult oriented than The Monkey King, which tried to pull off the same concept. For films that feature the Monkey King as one of the lead characters, I have to admit that Wu Kong just might be my favorite of recent memory which comes as a huge surprise to me.

Eddie Peng and wig in their natural state. 
When stripping down Wu Kong to its script and narrative, the film is solid but hardly groundbreaking. It leaps into the period where our anti-hero (yes, the character of Sun Wu Kong is very much portrayed as a likable, but often misguided anti-hero) is on the verge of breaking into heaven to take out the mystic ‘destiny device’ that he sees as the reason his home on Mountain Huang was destroyed by the Gods. The film glosses over his origins previous to this moment with a bit of exposition assuming the audience knows, in general, where the Monkey King came from and the details of his assent to power. For westerners or those not familiar with his story, it can be a lot to swallow as this is not necessarily common cultural knowledge, but the film moves at such a pace and focuses on the current events that if one is willing to just go with the flow, then it still works. For those even with a general idea of the story, it’s refreshing that it doesn’t spend a lot of time on his back story, outside of what’s relevant for the story on hand.

From there, it takes a slightly new spin on the character and events as the film portrays Wu Kong as a kind of rebellious teen fighting the fight against ‘the man’ if you will. Previous incarnations have provided various looks of the character as a villain trying to change his ways or perhaps a kind of all too powerful child, but here the character is treated in a rather humane way and it’s refreshing. He’s almost a tormented soul, granted power to change the heavens, but a character trying to figure out just what that means and what his purpose is. Eddie Peng simply delights in the expansive emotions of the role and, to give it balance, Wu Kong establishes a handful of secondary characters around him to craft parallel themes and character arcs to his to reinforce the tone. Of these roles, both Shawn Yue and Ni Ni come off as truly enigmatic, both graceful in their screen presence and effective to the plot and build of the themes. This is one of the few times I’ve seen a romantic triangle subplot work so well in an action film (a fantasy nonetheless) and it’s inspiring. Even then some of the smaller roles come off as pivotal to the core themes and tone of the film even if they ultimately act as emotional core gimmicks. Having the second act take place on Earth, where our godly characters do not have powers and must band together to save a village from a demon seems silly at first, but it’s so well executed as part of the greater film it rises above the gimmicks and feeds into the whole in admirable ways. By the time we get to the third act, where the true transformation of the film into a full-blown fantasy epic happens, the audience is ready for it because it did the due diligence of building its character, tone, and plot to get us there. It’s not spectacle for the sake of spectacle and that’s a huge step up from most of the other Monkey King films.

Three eyes and one fist. 
The strong characterizations and rebellious thematic elements of the film are only one part of the why the film is successful at telling a tale that seems redundant. The other is that, which is perhaps the most shockingly pleasant, the action and spectacle is really well done. As in, yes, for once this year I’m going to praise the strong use of CGI in a fantasy film from China. Perhaps the bar was set low by the patchy work that mostly comes out of the market, but the use of CGI in Wu Kong is impressive and dynamic. Director Derek Kwok, who also serves as a writer on the film, knows how to craft both emotional and subtle sequences along with the massive ground shattering battles of Gods and the balance between the two is remarkable to say the least. Partnered with the brilliant set and costume design and powered with some fun make up effects for Wu Kong in the third act, Wu Kong soars as one of the best special effects driven films I’ve seen this year from China.

The battle is coming...
Truthfully, the strength of Wu Kong as a fantasy action film is jaw dropping. Even more shocking is that it crafts a character and story that simply demands to be franchised. Derek Kwok nails this film. It’s executed in robustly effective ways, focusing on the characters and themes to power the rest of the film which highlights the growing power of the fantasy spectacle as a story telling choice in Chinese cinema. In a cinematic landscape of too many Monkey King films, Wu Kong stands tall as one of the best for its use of dynamic writing and impressive visuals.

Now the question remains, when are we getting a Wu Kong 2?

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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