Sunday, February 18, 2018

Happy Chinese New Year, Have Some Sequels: The Monkey King 3 & Monster Hunt 2

One ore sequel to go for the weekend, but other big movie/vacation things are going to keep me from seeing Detective Chinatown 2 right away (I see that there is a theater in New Orleans playing that one, so maybe I'll do that on a rainy evening), and I'm drawn to the big FX spectacles anyway. From what I gather, Monster Hunt 2 is the really massive hit this weekend in China, but Detective Chinatown seems to have grabbed more theaters in the U.S., perhaps because the student/expat audience that sees a lot of these movies in North America doesn't have kids.

Whatever the reason, the two family-friendly fantasies I saw were pretty darn decent, enough that I fear I'll learn the wrong lesson from seeing Monkey King 3 even though the first two were kind of disappointing. Their release as a whole is kind of interesting to me just in terms of how awkward these international releases can be - obviously, the Lunar New Year is a massive movie release weekend in China, much like Christmas, and Thanksgiving are in the U.S. and Diwali is in India, but even things with potential crossover appeal like Monster Hunt 2 get steamrolled because it goes up against Black Panther, which has a lot of screens, including almost all of the 3D ones. Both Monkey King and Monster Hunt strike me as potentially looking pretty good in that format, but the opportunity just isn't going to be there in America, which is a shame: There doesn't seem to have been the backlash against that format in Asia that there has in America, and both of these films had Hong Kong crews that are really good at using space in their action sequences.

Anyway, even if these movies are playing in a theater that MoviePass doesn't currently support and Black Panther is (understandably) a priority, give some thought to checking them out. They're pretty decent on their own and the fact that they are kind of huge, popular hits - you will likely see MH2 on some year-end list of the biggest movies worldwide - means they've got pretty broad appeal and you've got a chance to see where movies will go as Hollywood continues to chase the world market.

Xiyouji zhi NĂ¼'erguo (The Monkey King 3)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

Sometimes, the third time apparently is the charm - despite a pair of less-than-impressive predecessors, director Cheang Pou-soi's third Monkey King film winds up being pretty darn decent. It's been a heck of a troubled path to get there, as the producers basically scrapped everything and started over at one point, and there have been at least two better takes on the same material while this series of movies has been a going concern, but on its own, this particular flick isn't a bad way to spend a couple hours if your local theater has booked it for Chinese New Year.

It picks up roughly where the previous film left off, with Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) serving monk Tang Sanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) as he journeys to the west to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures, along with pig demon Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and water buffalo demon Sha Wujing (Him Law). Their route takes them down a waterway whose local river god has been wrecking shifts, and they are saved when a hand from the heavens sends them through a portal to the Womanland of Western Liang. Tang and the young Queen (Zanilla Zhao Liying) are immediately smitten, but men are outlawed in Womanland, and the royal Perceptor (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) is determined to make sure the death sentence is carried out, especially since there's a prophecy that this party heralds doom.

The irony is that it works in large part because Sun Wukong is pretty close to being a side character here, right up until a finale where they face a protean adversary that just can't be hit with a stick, which is pretty much Wukong's go-to move. Instead, the story focuses on the monk and the queen, forcing both to decide between personal attachment and greater responsibilities. It's a wobbly plot arguably built on what many may consider a false premise of there not being room in people's lives for both (indeed, many people need both), but it gives Feng good material to work with while his demon pals are mostly comic relief, and the series could arguably use an entry like that - adventure movies made from The Journey to the West often focus on the exciting monsters and wind up playing Tang as a naive fool who needs Wukong to bail him out, undercutting that the point is for the arrogant demigod to learn from the humble human. Presenting the group with a situation where even the villains are motivated and somewhat sympathetic, and that must be solved spiritually, even as it causes Tang to question himself, is a good move even if it does mean there's less action.

Full review on EFC

Zhou yao ji 2 (Monster Hunt 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

There are many sorts of sequels, all with their various merits - the serialized story, the shifting genres, the attempt to recapture the same magic but with more resources. Monster Hunt 2 definitely falls into the "more of the first" category of sequel, with a story that is often vague enough that it like some combination of treading water until a climactic third part or only having time for a loose outline before shooting because the filmmakers knew they'd have to leave time for visual effects in order to hit a Chinese New Year release date. That's okay; that first was pretty good and this doesn't throw much of it away to get Wuba and his human foster parents together again.

As it opens, Wuba and many of the other monsters in the human world are living in a new Village of Peace in the woods, and while young monster hunters Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) miss the little tentacled radish, they know he would not have been safe with them. It turns out he's not safe in the village either, as it's attacked and his guardians (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue & Eric Tsang Chi-wai) just barely help him to escape. Fortunately, he meets up with BenBen, an adult member of his species, albeit one who works with con artist and gambling addict Tu Sigu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who owes a lot of money to loan shark Zhu Jinzhen (Li Yuchun), and though she'd accept his hand in marriage instead, he'd probably rather have the cash bounty on Wuba's head. Meanwhile, not realizing Wuba is in danger, Xiaolan and Tianyin are starting to have certain qualms about the Monster Hunters' Bureau - for every rising young star like Yun Qing (Tony "Yo" Yang Yo-ning), there seem to be a lot of people just as happy to kill monsters as capture them.

Unlike a lot of sequels trying to scratch the same itch as their predecessors, Monster Hunt 2 opts to shake up the cast rather than bringing everyone back to repeat the same catchphrases, and this actually turns out to be a strength for the new movie. Bai Baihe and Jing Boran are back as Xiaolian and Tianyin, although they've got an easier, less contentious chemistry that comes from the tomboyish Xiaolian and the emotive Tianyin mostly accepting themselves as an odd couple rather than making any serious attempt for an interloper to get between them (in fact, Xiaolin more-or-less ignoring any attempt in that direction is something of a running joke). There's an enjoyable new group of supporting characters, from Da Peng as the Bureau's Q-equivalent (the one with the crush on Xiaolin) to the ever-reliable Tony Leung Chiu-wai as Tu. Leung plays the sort of scoundrel that is still worthy of his money-lender's affection, with Li Yuchun having fun chewing the scenery in that role.

Full review on EFC

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