Some time after the events of A Chinese Odyssey (1994/5), reformed thief Joker (Han Geng) is now happily paired with beautiful fairy Zixia (Tiffany Tang), unaware he is the reincarnated Monkey King (also Han Geng, in monkey makeup). However, using the Pandora's Box, Zixia glimpses a tragic future that ends with her death leaving Joker heartbroken and alone. To that end Zixia travels back in time to ensure Joker will never fall in love with her but stay with his first girlfriend Bak Jing Jing (Karen Mok). Yet fate keeps bringing them together again and again. So in desperation Zixia elects to become a concubine of the evil Bull King (Juck Zhang), but this sparks a domestic battle with his wife Princess Iron Fan (Xie Nan) that wreaks unforseen celestial consequences for the Jade Emperor (Shawn Huang), unearths yet another love story and reveals a heavenly secret about the Monkey King.
The good news is that Jeff Lau's ingenuity as a screenwriter and imagination as a visual stylist remain strong as ever. Taken purely as a thrill-ride through the wacky world of Chinese fantasy, A Chinese Odyssey: Part Three undeniably delivers as a lively, inventive cinematic spectacle with a level of imagination that puts drab Hollywood fantasies to shame. Lau's background as a graphic artist always lent his comedies a unique visual flair. Here he takes advantage of advances in digital technology (though strangely while the CGI has improved, makeup effects have got worse) to craft gorgeous moving representations of classical Chinese art. His fantasy action sequences have a painterly flair conjuring dragons and demons, gods and mystical superpowers. The Monkey King's cosmic battle with the Goddess of Mercy (Sophia Hu Jing) is especially striking, rendered through whirling columns of water and giant floating lotus blossoms. The film also includes a rare moment of gross-out horror when split-mouthed demon harpy Xiang Xiang (Zhang Yao) devours a squirming, silk-wrapped captive.
True to form Lau also peppers his film with silly pop culture gags including a flashback staged like a parody of the oft-filmed literary classic Butterfly Lovers, a reference to Taiwanese matinee idol Charlie Chin and the Longevity Monk's inexplicable fondness for zany disguises. As played by the underrated Jacky Wu Jing, the erstwhile Tripitaka enters the film in a flash of light dressed as Michael Jackson from the 'Smooth Criminal' video then later appears as a blue-skinned N'avi from James Cameron's Avatar (2009) which was hugely popular in China. Of course the defining characteristic of a Jeff Lau movie is his eccentric albeit skillful ability to interweave zany, anything goes humour straight out of a Mel Brooks spoof with a disarmingly sincere love story laden with allusions to classical Chinese literature. Here Lau conceives some mind-boggling complex ideas involving time travel, identity-swaps, reincarnation, a fake Monkey King and two characters inhabiting the same body and embeds them within screwball farce and romantic complications. The result plays like a Shakespeare comedy on acid. A love story at heart, between time travel bouts and super-powered battles A Chinese Odyssey: Part Three ponders whether there is such a thing as a 'one true love' or if mere biological urges drive people to pair up with whoever we fancy at any given moment? Lau's humanist approach even renders the villains sympathetic characters with their own romantic entanglements and tragically relatable motives.
Even so, where A Chinese Odyssey: Part Three falters (aside from the gags being weaker than those in the original) is its inability to rekindle the audience's empathy with the two central lovers. Part of that comes down to the wildly convoluted nature of the narrative, although that aspect was present though less noticeable in the original. Yet the problem stems equally from Lau's new cast. Former boy-band idol Han Geng and photogenic Tiffany Tang have proven capable actors in the past but here fall short of matching the vivid comic characterizations of original stars Stephen Chow and Athena Chu. Mind you, one imagines their legions of obsessive adoring fans strongly disagree and would happily crucify me for suggesting otherwise. Despite such flaws there is a lot to like about Lau's latest Monkey King fantasy which features moments of lyrical beauty and philosophical contemplation beyond the reach of most comedies or blockbusters.