They had me at Chow Yun Fat. I wasn’t too sure about Donnie Yen as the Monkey King – it’s been played to perfection twice, by Masaaki Masai in the 60s, and Jet Li in 2008. In fact, Jet Li was so adorable I didn’t know how anyone could ever be Monkey King again. Donnie Yen, I’ve always thought, is so serious (although he surprised me in 2008’s Painted Skin) that the idea of him taking on the role of this mischievous, playful rogue never occured to me.
Well, there he is, looking all mischievous and playful, and if Masai and Li had never existed, he might even get the top spot. He stars in a very engaging movie based on the legend, although it takes place before the actual journey to the west. This chronicles the behaviour that got Monkey (called Sun Wukong in Heaven) imprisoned under a mountain in the first place, for causing chaos in Heaven. which Monkey manages by simply not thinking of the consequences of anything he does.
In spite of his wicked ways, the Jade Emperor of Heaven (Chow Yun Fat) is fond of him and tries to protect him, but has no choice but to set his enemies on him in an effort to control Monkey’s rage, led by the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) and Erlangshen, the ‘three-eyed’ head of Heavenly security (Peter Ho). All three are a joy to behold, and adding a little romance and charm is Xia Zitong as Ruxue, the legendary nine tailed fox, who soul bonds with Monkey as a new born.
While critics generally were not impressed in the west, it was a huge hit with its intended audience in China and earned more than $175m worldwide, so for director Cheang Pou-soi it was well worth causing a little chaos at the box office.