If, judging by the trailers, the summer’s great female assassin film will not be Atomic Blonde, but Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess, I know from having just seen it that so far the summer’s great action film isDerek Kwok’s Wu Kong with its repeated tagline, “My name will be remembered a million years, Sun Wu Kong.” A slight exaggeration there, but it has been a thousand years that the legend of the Sun, the Monkey King, has been around.
Our superhero’s quest is audacious enough. For a long time, the gods have ruled the fate of the earth, so … heaven must be torn down.
There is a set of superheroes on hand, including Shawn Yue, broken-hearted because he fell in love with a mortal, who somehow found herself in heaven. Once she is sent back to earth, she forgets everything that happened above the clouds. Then there’s the reigning goddess’s errant daughter, Ni Ni, who falls for Wu Kong, even loving him when he reveals his true colors or, rather, fur and becomes a monkey.
The plot has the populist elements so common in Korean films of late, such as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, in which a sea monster can’t be defeated by the forces of the bumbling, but sinisterly police state, but is laid low by a collection of street sellers and homeless people. Here, Wu Kong and his fellow immortals, once exiled to earth and battling a wind demon, can only conquer it with the help of the downtrodden, nearly starving villagers. In this episode, the poetic fantasy that illuminates the film, much like that felt in Wu Ershan’s Painted Skin: The Resurrection, is registered in the strategy to capture the demon. In this always-cloud-covered region, the villagers stretch a mass of pink and red rags on layered clotheslines, which they back light with fires, so as to trick the monster into thinking this is a sunset.
The role of the Monkey is played with great panache by Eddie Peng. Last week, he was concurrently on the screen in Ann Hui’s WWII resistance film Our Time Will Come where Peng is the leader of the armed resistance in occupied HK. The role demands, actually, the same vigor and insouciance as that of the immortal in the other film. For instance, in Our Time, Peng, whose identity has not been discovered, attends a banquet of Chinese collaborators where a reward is being proposed for his bringing him in. He stands up and demands the money as he has brought himself in, then he and his comrades gun down the heads of the organization, proclaiming, “This is the reward for traitors.” (Ebert calls the film “a surprisingly effective call to arms,” mentioning truly, that this is “one of the month’s most essential theatrical releases.”) Peng here plays opposite Zhou Xun, who heads the section of the resistance that is printing and distributing anti-Japanese leaflets. Xun, the central character, gives an extraordinarily, restrained translucent performance as a woman drawn into the fight through her love of the writings of Mao Tun, a subversive author, renting a room in her house, whom she helps escape HK, in this a very tense thriller.
But back to Wu Kong. Now superhero films have to end with cataclysmic battles, and this one is no exception. I don’t need to tell you that that HK films, with their martial arts heritage, generally rise above the dismal level of choreography and action sequences seen in HW productions as they do, in concocting the endings, in allowing more flexibility in that, as happens here, major characters end up killed off. That said, such scenes can be wearisome if they are over-protracted.
Still and all, the good humor, genuine populism, iconic acting and constant inventiveness elevate this film above the lackluster competition. Moreover, can one imagine the any HW film imbued with such a modicum of anarchist spirit as displayed in the very last line of this HK film? Wu Kong proclaims, “I will never rest until every god has been destroyed.”