AKA: The Monk
Director: Chen Kaige
Producer: Chen Hong
Cast: Wang Bao Qiang, Aaron Kwok, Chang Chen, Lin Chi-ling, Fan Wei, Yuen Wah, Vanness Wu, Wang Xueqi, Danny Chan Kwok-kwan, Lam Suet, Dong Qi, Li Xuejian, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Tiger Hu Chen, Jaycee Chan
Running Time: 123 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Up until recently Shaolin trained actor Wang Bao Qiang’s choice of roles did little to show off his physical talents, from his debut in the 2003 drama Blind Shaft, to starring in the hugely popular comedy Lost in Thailand in 2012. Bao Qiang’s luck changed though in 2014, in which he got to bust out his kung fu repertoire not once, but twice, against current action king Donnie Yen in Iceman 3D and Kung Fu Jungle. The 2015 production Monk Comes Down the Mountain rightfully generated a lot of excitement amongst fans of martial arts cinema, as it’s the first movie which casts Bao Qiang in the starring role of a kung fu movie.
Based on a novel by martial arts writer Xu Haofeng, who is also credited as a screenwriter for The Grandmaster, the kung fu loving demographic weren’t the only ones to get excited, as it was also announced that Chen Kaige would be directing. Kaige has long been an ambassador for Chinese cinema, his most well known work, Farewell My Concubine, famously walking away with the Palme D’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Since then Kaige has worked steadily, with his last movie before making Monk Comes Down the Mountain, Caught in the Web, being submitted as the Chinese entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. While his latest work may seem like a drastic departure, it’s worth noting that Kaige turned his attention to commercial filmmaking before, with the 2005 fantasy wuxia, The Promise.
The Promise was considered to be an interesting choice for Kaige, and the final product is frequently referred to as rather uneven, and in some cases, quite silly. Having watched Monk Comes Down the Mountain, it’s safe to say that his second venture into the world of mainstream martial arts themed cinema also suffers from the same issues, while unfortunately also being frequently irritating. The movies faults are present in spite of having a significant amount of support behind it, with the picture marking the second time Hollywood studio Columbia Pictures have ventured into the Chinese market (the first being Jian Wen’s Gone with the Bullets).
The main problem is that Monk Comes Down the Mountain presents us with a simple story, but makes the mistake of presenting it in a very childish manner. Bao Qiang plays a monk in an impoverished temple, who in the opening scene fights a group of other monks to win some food, in an incredibly cartoony and wire-work heavy sequence that involves tickling and excessive gurning. Having won the fight, the abbot casts him out from the temple for being too cocky, and hence he ‘comes down the mountain’ and into the real world to learn about life. Bao Qiang’s monk will put a lot of people off in the first 30 minutes, he’s annoyingly naïve and manically laughs at everything, and his 10 feet into the air somersaults over moving cars set to circus style music are more grating than endearing.
Thankfully his character does develop, and soon he’s taken in by a pharmacist played by Fan Wei. When Bao Qiang learns that Wei’s wife, played by Lin Chi Ling, is cheating with his eccentric younger brother, portrayed by Vaness Wu (sporting a bizarre Vanilla Ice haircut), it triggers a chain of events that lead to Bao Qiang setting off on a path of revenge, forgiveness, and redemption. This translates onscreen to him going from place to place meeting a variety of different characters, some of whom have good intentions, and others not so much.
The Monk Comes Down the Mountain crams in a lot of big Chinese names into its cast. Although it’s worth noting that despite Aaron Kwok and Chang Chen sharing top billing with Bao Qiang, Kwok doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, with Chang Chen only showing up in the final 30 minutes. If you were interested to see the movie as a fan of either, it’s worth adjusting your expectations accordingly. Surprisingly, the two characters who get the most screen time outside of Bao Qiang are a dastardly father and son duo played by kung fu legend Yuen Wah and Jaycee Chan.
It’s hard to tell, but there seems to be a heap of meta-references going on with the relationship between Wah and Chan, which appear to be referencing the real life tumultuous relationship between Jackie Chan and his son. Wah is a kung fu master who wants people to respect Chan, but is frustrated at his offspring’s lack of martial arts talent. One extended sequence in the movie revolves entirely around Chan taking drugs, which leads to his face becoming deformed and him performing all kinds of drug influenced silliness. In another scene he’s busted smoking a joint, and when not doing either he nervously flicks at his nose as if he recently snorted something. Coincidence that at the time the movie was released Chan had recently been arrested in China for drug use? It seems unlikely, but it also does the movie no favors, as the references stick out too obviously.
The playful nature of the movies opening is soon discarded to focus on some clumsily delivered kung fu intrigue. It turns out Kwok and Chen have mastered the Ape Strike, however Wah feels that the technique was stolen from him before he had a chance to master it, so has vowed to get the kung fu manual back and kill the pair. While the prospect of seeing some Ape Strike kung fu sounds pretty exciting, the name is deceiving. In a strange back-story, it’s explained that only apes can look at the sun and capture it within their eyes, which allows them to move at almost superhuman speeds. For the person who masters the Ape Strike, they’ll also be able to move at superhuman speed. But wait, what’s the real connection to apes, and where’s the strike!? There is none.
This of course leads to the movies biggest problem of all – the action. Handled by Ku Huen Chiu, who was also the action director for Stephen Chow’s entertaining Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, and backed up by the same effects company responsible for the likes of The Matrix Reloaded, the action here is the antithesis of ‘less is more’. There isn’t a single grounded fight in the whole 2 hour runtime of The Monk Comes Down the Mountain, with every one of them requiring the participants to fly at least 10 feet off the ground. Even basic walking and running is wire assisted, and it all lacks any kind of sophistication or grace.
Wire-work always splits opinions down the middle, and I confess I’m someone who doesn’t mind it. Done in the correct way wire enhanced moves do exactly what they’re intended to do – enhance the action. However here Huen Chiu seems to have no understanding of how space and impact affect a viewer’s reaction and investment to the scene. Where’s the danger in a fight if you’re going to have someone doing Hulk style jumps to the other end of a field? What’s the difference between a light tap with a sword and a roundhouse kick if they both send the person on the receiving end flying/floating into the distance with equal power? There’s no sense of spectacle or awe in any of the moves, and by the time Chen jumps as high as a cloud in the finale it’s difficult to care.
I blame the Ape Strike. Thanks to its powers Aaron Kwok effectively plays a Jedi, able to beckon objects into his hand from a distance via telekinesis, and Chen is Neo, able to move so quick he can dodge bullets, and even getting a multiple-Agent Smith style fight scene a la The Matrix Reloaded. Huen Chiu even manages to massacre a traditional Peking Opera performance, in a scene which has Chen in full Opera makeup throwing CGI tables across the auditorium like boomerangs, before stacking them on top of each other.
It’s a shame that Bao Qiang’s ascension to top star of a movie is paired with Kaige’s descent into mediocre filmmaking. Given the right material, both men are capable of greatness, however in this instance, perhaps they both should have stayed on the mountain.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10
Disclaimer: Monk Comes Down the Mountain was shown on China IMAX screens in 3D. However here in Australia, it got a cinematic release in 2D, which is how I watched it.