The Monkey King 3 (Soi Cheang, 2018)

monkey_king_three_ver2_xlg

The latest in director Soi Cheang’s saga inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West might be the strangest one yet. The franchise blockbuster has always been a weird fit for the former director of indie horror movies and slick crime dramas, and Cheang’s first Monkey King was kind of a mess, taking place in an almost parodically artificial computer-generated environment when it wasn’t populated by humans in sub-Cats animal costumes, and led by a distractingly fidgety performance by an unrecognizable Donnie Yen. The second film was a big improvement, as the effects were higher quality and more strikingly original, the acting, with Aaron Kwok taking over the title role and Gong Li playing the primary villain, much improved and the story much more in Cheang’s comfort zone. The second one was the first to follow the Journey to the West itself, with the Monkey King designated to help Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk from Tang Dynasty China, travel to India in order to bring back essential scriptures. The plot involves the Tang monk’s efforts to reform the White-Bone Demon (Li), a malevolent creature whom everyone else would prefer to simply destroy. The Monkey King must learn to submit his violent impulses to his master’s compassion, despite his firm belief that he knows best.

The third film in the series opens with an image from the second, the massive skeletal incarnation of the White-Bone Demon glowering over the Earth, and flips it, literally, as we plunge into a film wholly opposite its predecessor. Where the second film was dominated by mountain snow, dark nights, and cruel, demonic violence, this one takes place in lush green riverlands, and its concerns will be romantic and all-too human. Escaping an angry river god in the film’s first moments, the monk and his party (the Monkey King, the reformed pig demon Bajie, the blue-skinned muscle-man Sha, and their magical White Dragon Horse) are thrown, thanks to a wormhole helpfully provided by Buddha himself, into a secluded kingdom populated entirely by women. Men are banned from the kingdom, and the heroes are to be executed on sight but are saved by the young queen (Zanilla Zhao, an earnest waif last seen here in Duckweed), who has fallen in love with the monk. With a few sidetracks (including an ill-considered subplot about obtaining abortions for the men who become pregnant and some spectacular water effects as the river god reveals his own unrequited love story), the rest of the film is about Xuanzang’s desire to remain with the woman he now loves and his need to abandon her to continue his quest.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the monk’s story, and he really takes center stage here, with the Monkey King relegated to a supporting role. William Feng builds on his strong work in the second film with his most soulful performance yet. The Kingdom of Women story in the novel plays out very differently, with the monk pretending to marry the Queen and then sneaking away, and it’s not one I’ve ever seen adapted before. Though Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons has the monk come to the same realization, that you can’t really renounce anything if you don’t have any attachments in the first place, as the final step in his enlightenment. Choosing this as the next story in the saga I think is a telling choice, especially when one might have expected a more famous subject like the Cave of the Spider Women, in which female demons lure the heroes with the promise of sex and then try to eat them. That would have been more in line with the White-Bone Demon story of the second film. But instead Cheang zigzags into completely the opposite type of story, neatly subverting the misogyny inherent in both the original Kingdom of Women chapter and the popular Spider-Women stories. Once again, Soi Cheang has utterly defied expectations within a single blockbuster film series: from goofy cartoon to bleak action horror to gorgeous romantic tragedy.

One Night Only (Matt Wu, 2016)

unspecified-2

An Aaron Kwok movie is opening on Seattle Screens for the second time in three weeks, as the now venerable pop star/actor follows up his taciturn performance as the cooly rational police bureaucrat in Cold War 2 with a turn as a compulsive gambler with unresolved family issues in Matt Wu’s One Night Only. It’s the Taiwanese Wu’s directorial debut and also stars his wife, Yang Zishan, who starred in Three actress Zhao Wei’s directorial debut So Young a few years ago, an unrelated sequel to which called Never Gone opened last week at the Pacific Place. Like a lot of debut films, One Night Only is positively bursting with ideas and influences, its a work of exuberant cinephilia, pulling together elements of films as disparate as Nights of Cabiria, Rebel Without a Cause, 2046, One Night in Mongkok, the Fast and the Furious series and what I imagine Nicholas Sparks films are like into a movie that resolutely refuses to simply be one thing, but rather changes shape every reel or so in a way that never quite holds together, but is nonetheless fascinating in its audacity. It recalls last year’s under-the-radar gem of diasporic Chinese cinema, Go Away Mr. Tumor, a film that juggled the demands of the cute CGI rom-com and the cancer melodrama far more successfully than it had any right to. One Night Only doesn’t hang together quite as well, or at all even, but it’s got more energy than almost any movie you’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer.

Continue reading One Night Only (Matt Wu, 2016)”

Cold War 2 (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)

2012-cold-war-still-2-1

Picking up right where their 2012 hit film, which featured an all-star cast and swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, left off, Longman Leung and Sunny Luk present another suspenseful tale of corruption and double-dealing in the highest echelons of the Hong Kong police department, its two institutional halves at (cold) war with each other. On the operations side is The Other Tony Leung, a tough man of action, of the “break the law to enforce the law” type valorized in Hong Kong cinema since at least the mid-1980s. On the administrative side is Aaron Kwok, emotionless, calculating and fiercely determined to uphold the letter of the law. The two wage a Crimson Tide-esque battle of wills over a tense hostage situation, in which an Emergency Unit van and its five police officers have been captured by unknown criminals. Kwok wins out and assumes command of the force, and the second half of the film follows his investigation of the terrorists, leading to the arrest of Leung’s own son, played by Rise of the Legend‘s Eddie Peng, as the ringleader. But, in a cliffhanger ending, Peng’s accomplices demand his release: they have now kidnapped Kwok’s wife.

Continue reading Cold War 2 (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)”