Apr 23, 2008

The Monkey King ... er, The Forbidden Kingdom

VERY enjoyable movie. Jackie Chan and Jet Li together make movie magic--I just had to say it--and give the audiences a compelling show. Ironically, Chan and Li both come from this genre of action movies--chop-socky--but they had to do Western-style action movies to achieve Hollywood star power. And meanwhile, the genre was revived by such notables movies as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers.

OK, now that I've had my say, the movie. The hero is the ordinary and likeable kid in Brooklyn (Boston?) obsessed with old kung fu movies, Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, who perfected the ordinary-guy-forced-to-become-a-hero technique in Sky High, another enjoyable movie--sorry, now I've had my say :-). He frequents the old Chinese memorabilia shop around the corner always in the hope of finding another old kung fu classic.

One day he finds an ancient staff of power in the store, and the elderly proprietor tells him that it's waiting for someone to return it to its rightful owner ... a mischievous deity known as the Monkey King. The Monkey King is probably the most interesting character in the movie, although he's absent for most of it. (Indeed I keep thinking of the movie as The Monkey King. Hence the accident-on-purpose title to this post.) The legend goes that he was imprisoned in stone after being tricked by the Bad Guy, who we'll come to in a bit.

Almost as if on cue, Jason gets into serious trouble with some of the neighbourhood thugs. Although the thugs do look like they could be from the cast of West Side Story, they are deadly serious for Jason, who is forced to run for his life, with the staff in his hands by accident.

He's cornered by the thugs, who're about to kill him, but the staff mystically transports him into ... The Forbidden Kingdom ... I guess, a faraway ancient China. He regains consciousness to find that some kindly villagers have taken him in, and finds soon enough that the villages and people of the kingdom are mightily oppressed by the armies of the Jade Warlord, who rules over the Kingdom in the absence of the Heavenly Emperor, and has imprisoned the Monkey King by tricking him into parting with his magical staff.

By chance, Jason is saved from some Imperial soldiers by Lu Yan (Chan), a vagabond who drinks wine all day and swaggers along until he's forced to fight, at which time you get to see some MAD skillz. Recognising the holy staff and taking Jason for a monk who is trying to return it to the Monkey King, Lu Yan takes Jason under his wing and teaches him the kung fu he will need to defend himself. They're joined by Golden Sparrow, a young maiden who has her own reasons to go along with them.

Along the way they meet The Silent Monk (Jet Li), who mistakes Jason for a thief and snatches the staff from him, leading to maybe one of the most anticipated fight scenes in movie history, between Chan and Li. Eventually they learn they're on the same side, and share a good laugh over Jason--`He's not even Chinese!'

Anyway, that's the setup, and these four characters are faced with the quest of returning the staff to Four Elements Mountain and freeing the Monkey King from his stone prison, where he's been for the past 500 years while the Jade Warlord terrorised the Kingdom unchecked.

Now, I won't talk about the quest itself--how Jason is trained by the two martial arts masters, how they survive a desert crossing to come to Four Elements Mountain, or how one of them is treacherously shot in the back by the White-Haired Bride (another staple of old martial arts cinema), and what Jason has to do to save that person. But it's all well worth watching, in the theatre if you can, with friends or a girlfriend (I think).

But I will talk about the Monkey King a bit. He is an unbeatable warrior with his mystic staff of power, and a mischievous spirit, always thumbing his nose at authority--especially the Jade Warlord, who is the Commander of the Imperial Army. This is what arouses the Warlord's hatred of him, and maybe what turns him evil. The motivations of the deities aren't examined in full--probably the movie would become an angst-ridden existential piece--but there's just enough there to leave you wondering what kind of politics they would have had in a heavenly imperial court. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

There's one thing I want to rant about. Apparently the consensus in reviews of the movie is `Great fight scenes, but too much filler'. To me, it was just the right amount and length. I've heard about, and been sceptical of, American audiences' apparent desire for `dumbing down' of movie plots, but this movie has an intriguing plot which makes you care about the characters, wonder about the life and times of the setting, and miss it when Jason gets back to New York, as he must in the end. If you don't know some backstory, how can you fill in the blanks in your head with interesting fantasy? That's part of what makes it fun. It's like these reviewers want a made-to-order story with exactly right amounts of setup and payoff, and no lingering anywhere, in case they're forced to think about a fantasy world (<Deity> forbid).

At one point, understandably, Jason's reaction to finding himself in ancient China is thinking it's a dream. There's a moment slightly after this where it's driven home to him how dangerous the dream is. Lu Yan for once sheds his humorous nature and says to Jason something like, `If you die in this realm, you will be found dead where you came from!' A dire warning in an otherwise light-hearted movie. The mix of light and heavy elements is right.

SPOILER WARNING: There is a spoiler (at least by my reckoning) in the comment below. Scroll down to see it.


















































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