Continuing their epic journey to the west in search of the sacred sutras Sun Wu Kong the Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), pious monk Xuanzang (William Feng) and bumbling companions Pigsy (Xiao Shen-Yang) and Sandy (Him Lo Lun-Kim) narrowly escape an enraged River God. Only to inadvertently wander into Womanland, a cloistered kingdom populated solely by women. Since its founding no man has set foot in the kingdom before and ancestral teachings decree men to be their greatest enemy. Worse yet an ancient prophecy foretells that the arrival of a monk and his monkey disciple will bring about the downfall of Womanland and its ruler. Yet the beautiful young Queen (Zhao Liying) falls instantly in love with Xuanzang.
Ever wondered why the villains in Monkey King stories are, more often than not, slinky, seductive women? Maybe it reflects traditional Buddhist philosophy's antipathy towards sex. Something at odds with the more balanced relationship between the sensual and the spiritual found in China's other major religion: Taoism. Whatever the case, it would appear that the creative team behind The Monkey King series took note of the archaic misogyny that marred past adaptations of Wu Cheng-En's sixteenth century novel Journey to the West and sought to tackle that theme head on here. The result is an especially strong entry, by turns witty, romantic and poetic in its analysis of gender disparity and the meaning of true love. An improvement upon the solid but unremarkable Monkey King II (2016). Having replaced original star Donnie Yen in the previous sequel, Aaron Kwok seems much more comfortable in the role this time around. He gives a wilder, more exuberant turn befitting the Monkey's mischievous nature.
Part Three revisits a chapter of the sprawling mythological saga previously adapted for the screen as the Shaw Brothers' musical fantasy Land of Many Perfumes (1968). However Soi Pou Cheang opts for a more nuanced retelling of the traditional tale. While the first two films in the series were fairly serious the third entry is often riotously funny with laugh-out-loud slapstick moments (e.g. the scene where our heroes fake their own deaths in front of an execution squad). But the romance also works much better this time around. Especially the star-crossed love between William Feng's handsome yet emotionally repressed Xuanzang and the more ebullient, openhearted young Queen played by Zhao Liying, current reigning queen of Chinese TV dramas. As in Jeff Lau's genre mash-up A Chinese Tall Story (2005) the plot thrusts the usually passive Xuanzang centre stage as a romantic lead but infuses the love story with philosophical undertones.
Established right from the opening scene the central theme deals with the tension between concepts of spiritual and romantic love, whether these remain mutually exclusive or can co-exist and bridge the age long gulf of misunderstanding between the sexes. While a trifle shapeless the plot still takes disarming twists and turns, ruminating on an unfortunate history of men exploiting then demonizing women and in one remarkable, multi-layered sequence, giving three of the male characters an insight into one, er, unique aspect of womanhood. Interwoven with the central relationship is a beguiling subplot recounted in flashback dealing with yet another tragic romance. This time between a mysterious young woman and the River God played, interestingly, as gender ambiguous by actress Lin Chi-lin.
On a technical level Monkey King 3 recaptures some of the grandeur of the first movie. Crafted by makeup and digital effects wizards brought in from Hollywood the visuals are among the strongest in contemporary Asian blockbusters. Less concerned with photo-realism than mainstream genre fare than crafting a vivid and wondrous fantasy world, the lush over-saturated colours, lavish costumes, gravity-defying set-pieces (the most surreal of which involves the characters chasing an impish reanimated scroll whilst fighting giant scorpions) and astonishing fantastical creatures are spellbinding. Yet though the third act contrives a spectacular monster movie climax it is the depth of the characters and their unexpectedly engaging relationships that keep things compelling.