Film review: The Monkey King 2 – Aaron Kwok takes lead in vastly improved fantasy sequel
Smaller cast, tighter narrative focus and better design, plus director’s background in crime thrillers, makes this the best attempt yet at making Journey to the West an effects-driven blockbuster
You don’t require familiarity with its predecessor to appreciate The Monkey King 2 – although that would exponentially amplify your pleasant surprise at this new release. Less a cash grab than a startling overhaul of 2014 film The Monkey King’s slapdash storytelling, substandard visuals and poorly drawn characters, Soi Cheang Pou-soi’s second contribution to the franchise is a vastly improved production that marks the finest attempt yet at adapting Journey to the West for an effects-driven blockbuster.
The film picks up 500 years after the first ended, as the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng), while being attacked by a tiger, inadvertently releases Wukong the monkey king from under the Five Elements Mountain. Replacing Donnie Yen Ji-dan in the titular role is Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, who played the antagonist Bull Demon King in the previous outing but now, like the rest of us, secretly prefers it never happened. Unlike Yen’s mischievous interpretation, Kwok offers a soulful undertone to the character.
While they acquaint themselves as master and disciple and set off for the pilgrimage to the West under the instructions of the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen Wai-lam), the pair come across Xuanzang’s two other disciples, the pig demon Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and the sand demon Wujing (Him Lo Chung-him). Based on the well-known episode in which Wukong thrice struck the White Bone Spirit, the film also features Gong Li as that skeleton demon, while Kris Phillips plays a Persian king who preys on White’s reputation.
As Wukong repeatedly thwarts White’s attempts to devour Xuanzang while she’s disguised as human, leading to the misconception Wukong is killing people out of impulse, The Monkey King 2 reaches for darker moral themes that were arguably Soi’s bread and butter in the psychological thrillers earlier in his directing career. The dispute over justifying murder lends a gravity to the fantastic havoc in this sequel, which has benefited as much from the better visual design as it has from the smaller cast and tighter narrative focus.
The Monkey King 2 opens on February 6