The Monkey King ★★★½

An effects-spectacular miles removed from director Soi Cheang's early films, or even his glossier work for Milkyway Image. Taking a queue from Tsui Hark's Zu Warriors films, Cheang completely eschews realism or conventional psychological characterization in an attempt to capture the lunatic logic of mythology. Donnie Yen plays the hero, buried by makeup and CGI in a fidgety performance that looks something like what would happen if Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover touched a brain-switching idol at the same time. The elements of the Monkey King legend are all there, manifested in a ultra-bright world of floating mountains and palaces, hidden waterfall glades and buried hells and even an undersea kingdom that looks like someone pirated a hard drive from The Phantom Menace. Some of the fighting is pretty neat, with Chow Yun-fat (as the Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven) and Aaron Kwok (as the Bull Demon, ruler of the demons) flying more convincingly than did Tsui's Zu Warriors. The story of the Monkey King remains potent, an anarchic figure that struggles against the strict obedience dictated by rule-giving gods, striving towards freedom and immortality, but Cheang leaves most of it latent, hitting the high points melodramatically and quickly moving on to the next crazy image. Kwok and Chow are basically left to personal charm as a substitute for characterization, which works fine for Chow, because he's the best.

The effects aren't state of the art, at least in terms of what the Hollywood machine is able to put out. And compared to the visions in some of the wilder comic books out they, or even a random Ghibli film, they aren't tremendously innovative, but they do look pretty good, with plenty of things I've never seen before. It's brightly lit and spatially coherent, which is more than you can say for any Marvel movie, at least. Stephen Chow's Monkey King movie from last year, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, is much more heartfelt and more engaging, and just as compelling to look at.

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