Film Review: The Monkey King 3

Third entry in a blockbuster series is a bright, splashy search for love in a kingdom of women.
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A wellspring of Chinese culture, Journey to the West has inspired untold movies, including this three-part series named after the rascally Monkey King. More a detour than an upgrade, The Monkey King 3 will coast to box-office success in Asian markets largely on the reputation of the last action-filled entry.

Picking up from the previous films, The Monkey King 3 finds monk Xuanzang (William Feng) continuing his quest to locate scriptures in Thunder Monastery that will set mankind free from the cycle of death and rebirth. Accompanying him are the blue desert god, or sand demon, Wujing (Him Law); Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), a shape-shifting pig god; and Wukong (Aaron Kwok), the Monkey King himself, a trouble-making martial-arts expert.

An encounter with an androgynous river god sends the travelers into Womanland, a hidden kingdom ruled by an innocent Queen (Zanilia Zhao), but run by a strict Preceptor (pop star Gigi Leung). She's warned the Queen that men are the most venomous creatures in the world and must be killed.

Smitten by Xuanzang, the Queen tries to rescue him from death. The problem is the men can't leave Womanland until they pass through a gate that can only be opened by love. And Xuanzang has dedicated himself to saving the world, not falling in love.

Soi Cheang, who has directed all three films, has a grand visual style and a knack for ensemble scenes. Brightly lit by cinematographer Richard Bluck, The Monkey King 3 is a treat to watch, especially Lee Pik-Kwan's gorgeous costumes. But it's a chore to sit through. Plotting is basic and repetitive, action is limited and special effects are often disappointing.

Elvis Man's screenplay has some amusing digressions, including unexpected pregnancies, a "Miscarriage Cave" and giant scorpions guarding a walking, talking piece of paper. Unfortunately, the male gods, even the Monkey King, have very little to do. Zhao's Queen simpers too much, and Feng's monk, dressed up a like a chess piece, never raises his voice above a whisper. It's up to the spectacular Leung to bring some drama to the project.

For stateside viewers, The Monkey King 3 intersects weirdly with Hollywood fantasies, with allusions to everything from The Lord of the Rings to Wonder Woman and The Shape of Water. Soi Cheang's simplistic take on the source novel may guarantee a certain level of commercial success. But as Stephen Chow proved, Journey to the West can offer viewers much more.

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