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Review: The Golden Monk (2017)

The Golden Monk

降魔传

China/Hong Kong, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 91 mins.

Directors: Wang Jing 王晶 [Wong Jing], Zhong Shaoxiong 钟少雄 [Billy Chung].

Rating: 4/10.

Lame costume fantasy from the Wang Jing [Wong Jing] factory is barely kept afloat by actor Zheng Kai.

STORY

Hangzhou city, Southern Song dynasty, 12th century AD. The capital faces an invasion by evil spirits, leading to a sudden rise in the number of professional demon-hunters. One wealthy couple (Wang Zulan, Chen Farong) have hired a Daoist monk, Murong Zhengying (Luo Jiaying), who is scornful of another demon-hunter, Jingjing (Zhang Yuqi), who has offered her services for free. While Murong Zhengying struggles, another ghost-hunter turns up – young Buddhist monk Butong (Zheng Kai) from Xuanguang monastery. When a huge toad monster appears, Butong and Jingjing separately manage to kill it, and Jingjing takes the monster’s spine as payment. In their underground mountain laboratory, she and her sisterly sidekick Xiaoyu find the toad’s oil can power their time-reversal machine; all they need now is the eye of the Tianshan Monster. Jingjing is actually Yunv, a fairy who broke Heaven’s rules by falling in love and thereby affecting the Tree of Immortal Peaches which only flowers every 3,000 years. As punishment, her lover Golden Child was ordered to drink from the Cup of Forgetfulness and the two were banished from heaven and fated to remain apart for 100 lives/reincarnations. Butong is actually the Golden Child’s latest reincarnation, though Jingjing doesn’t recognise him. Back in Xuanguang monastery, Butong has his memory restored by his master Kong (Zhan Ruiwen) and is told to set out for Tianshan. There Jingjing and Xiaoyu are hunting for the one-eyed Tianshan Monster; all three are joined by male/female warrior Dugu Wubai (Xie Yilin) and manage to kill the monster. Jingjing takes its eye back to her laboratory and the time-reversal machine shows her and Butong’s past history together. But just as the lovers are reunited, the evil Beihai Dulong (Guo Haolun) turns up with his three shape-shifting daughters Sese (Mao Junjie), Zhu’er and Mi’er. Beihai Dulong needs Jingjing in his plot to overthrow the emperor (Wu Junchao); but unlike her sisters, Sese still has feelings for Butong, who as the Golden Child once helped her as a golden snake.

REVIEW

After pulling out all the stops with the topnotch gangster saga Chasing the Dragon 追龙 (2017), the Wang Jing 王晶 [Wong Jing] factory hits close to bottom with The Golden Monk 降魔传, a slapdash costume fantasy that’s barely held together by an energetic comic performance from Mainland actor Zheng Kai 郑凯 as a Buddhist demon-hunter. After an okay first half-hour, which sets up the plot in lively fashion, the script (credited solely to Wang) dissolves into a series of lame comic/action setpieces and a second half that’s mainly dominated by second-rate visual effects. Zheng occasionally gets some equally energetic support from louche Hong Kong comic Zhan Ruiwen 詹瑞文 [Jim Chim], as his Buddhist master, but his co-star, Mainland actress Zhang Yuqi 张雨绮, looks bored in the part of the heroine, while other players mug along to the screenplay’s tired humour. Mainland box-office has been unenthusiastic – some RMB90 million compared with Dragon‘s hearty RMB575 million.

Often looking like a younger version of Mainland comic actor Huang Bo 黄渤 in his mop-haired wig, Zheng, 31 – usually seen in cocky modern roles (Personal Tailor 私人订制, 2013; EX-Files 前任攻略, 2014; One Night Stud 有种你爱我, 2015) – channels his arrogant persona into a lively character seemingly modelled on the hard-drinking, meat-eating 11th-century Buddhist monk Ji Gong 济公, a character celebrated in numerous TVDs and films, most famously by Zhou Xingchi 周星驰 [Stephen Chow] in The Mad Monk 济公 (1993), directed by Du Qifeng 杜琪峰 [Johnnie To]. This being a Wang Jing movie, however, the focus never stays on one thing for very long: apart from multiple hair jokes (another correspondence with Huang’s films), and US superhero references (via a moustachio-ed warrior played by Taiwan comedienne Xie Yilin 谢依霖, here looking badly out of place), the script gobbles up bits from every other costume fantasy and recycles them at a lower level. The VFX-dominated, final half-hour is a long slog indeed.

As the athletic, demon-hunting archer who’s really a heavenly fairy, Zhang, 31, is strangely listless and unelegant here. Even though her normally squeaky voice seems to have recently corrected itself, she generates no chemistry with Zheng, even in a drunk scene that holds plenty of promise. Apart from Zhan, other roles are routine, from Hong Kong veteran Luo Jiaying 罗家英 [Law Kar-ying] as a rival demon-hunter in the opening to other Hong Kongers like Wang Zulan 王祖蓝 and Chen Farong 陈法蓉 as a wealthy couple in the same sequence. In the pantomime roles of a bordello owner and his wife, Mainlanders Cheng Ye 程野 and Mao Mao 毛毛 are passable in scenes with Zheng, and TV/theatre actor Guo Haolun 郭海伦 brings a suitable stature to the villain of the piece without stretching himself in any way.

The magic formula that makes some Wang Jing productions better than others is still a mystery, but certainly doesn’t depend just on starpower (he’s made as many bad films with good casts as the other way round). Though this very Hong Kong of Hong Kong film-makers has made major efforts to adapt to the Mainland market during the past decade, he’s still at his strongest when dealing with Hong Kong genres such as gangster/action movies and silly comedies, rather than Chinese costume fantasies that try to blend Mainland and Hong Kong casts and sensibilities.

Wang’s co-directors certainly play a part in the magic formula, so the production isn’t helped by having Hong Kong journeyman Zhong Shaoxiong 钟少雄 [Billy Chung] on board. Zhong, whose last decent gig was co-directing From Vegas to Macau 赌城风云 (2014) with Wang, has recently had little luck branching out solo in the Mainland, with the routine comedy romance Revenge for Love 疯岳撬佳人 (2017) and the much-delayed period spy thriller Eternal Wave 密战 (2017). Technical credits on Monk are as routine as the direction. The Chinese title means “The Demon-Busters”.

CREDITS

Presented by Beijing Hairun Pictures (CN), Grand Canal Pictures (CN), Deer Pictures (CN), Mega-Vision Project Workshop (HK).

Script: Wang Jing [Wong Jing]. Music: Li Xiaotian.

Cast: Zheng Kai (Butong/Jintong/Golden Child), Zhang Yuqi (Yunv/Jingjing/Jade), Xie Yilin (Dugu Wubai), Mao Junjie (Sese/Snakey), Luo Jiaying [Law Kar-ying] (Murong Zhengying/Mighty Murray, Maoshan Daoist monk), Zhan Ruiwen [Jim Chim] (Kong, Butong’s master), Cheng Ye (Er Gou), Mao Mao [Lv Shiyi] (Huahua, Er Gou’s wife), Guo Haolun (Beihai Dulong/Nine-Sea Dragon), Wang Zulan (Wang Dahu), Chen Farong (Wang Dahu’s wife), Wu Junchao (emperor), Hu Ran (Guanyin), Zhen Qi, Wang Panyao.

Release: China, 17 Nov 2017; Hong Kong, tba.