The Monkey King 2 picks up 500 years after the events of the first installment where Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok taking over for Donnie Yen and who previously played Bull Demon King in the last movie) remains imprisoned under Five Fingers Mountain. And immediately, for those familiar with part one or the Chinese mythology told in the classic novel Journey to the West on which this film series is based on, the sequel carries a darker, slightly more serious tone compared to its predecessor. Of course, there is a good deal of comic relief to be enjoyed, some of which comes from Wukong's mischievous mishaps as well as a trio of new characters. Nevertheless, soon after traveling monk Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) frees Monkey, he is coerced into joining the Buddhist monk on his spiritual pilgrimage by a golden ring attached on his head. Whereas the previous movie enjoyed a more lighthearted, children's fairytale-like quality, the sequel is a more somber, mature fantasy touching on overcoming evil through meekness and self-sacrifice.
Not that filmmakers try to be more philosophical in this second go-around. Unless you think there is something more existential about a horny man-pig always looking for excuses to avoid responsibility. (Then again, perhaps he may actually serves a deeper metaphor after all. Meditate on this, I will.) But it's clear the script wants to attract a wider, more mature audience, as Wukong slowly learns his confidence and ego lead to rash, unthoughtful decision-making. Director Cheang Pou-soi returns to helm the production and often makes it seem as though Sanzang is also meant to learn something from his experience traveling to collect Buddha's scriptures in India, but what that lesson is never clear. Instead, we watch Zhu Bajie (Xiaoshenyang), a shape-shifting, womanizing pig who is true to the poor animal's stereotypes, discover his lewd, self-serving voraciousness can hurt those around him, the friends who accept him as he is. Meanwhile, Sha Wujing (Him Law), a monk who looks like the bastard child a genie and Vishnu, just learns how to be a better warrior.
To help the ragtag group on their quest for self-betterment, Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, Farewell My Concubine) joins the cast as Baigujing, the White Bone Demon, not as a friendly advisor. But as the child-eating demon who wants a taste of the monk's pure virgin blood. With a trio of devilishly fiendish minions (Lu Weu, Xi'er Qi and Miya Muqi) doing her every bidding, the story is much darker with an ominous atmosphere than its predecessor. Unlike the first movie where the demons had a cartoonish quality to them, these creatures are rather horrific, a nightmare-inducing personality with the presence to match. The boar monster isn't quite as menacing as the giant, fast-moving snake, but the bat beast is so hideous it might actually be cute. Come to think of it, I want one as a pet now. Sadly, the good guys are much better looking, but the monsters give our four musketeers (being the most useless until conveniently proven otherwise by the plot, Bajie plays d'Artagnan in this comparison) a reason to unite and protect Sanzang.
The evil demons provide The Monkey King 2 with all the requisite action and excitement, but they also bring the plot's central theme to light. However, much of that tends to be lost under Sanzang and Wukong's rather confusing relationship at times. Their constant back and forth suggests a fragile bond that will strengthen as their adventure continues, but Wukong's ability to recognize Baigujing's human disguises when no one else can introduces a great deal of tension, straining that bond to the breaking point. Matter are further complicated when Sanzang chants a spell to tighten Wukong's head band as a form of punishment. And even after finally realizing he was wrong for not believing his companion, Sanzang never shows any regret or remorse, leaving us to wonder what exactly he learned from the pilgrimage. I'm sure something got lost in translation. And besides, Ran Ping's script is nonetheless entertaining, made all the more beautiful and brought to life by the amazing photography of Yang Tao and Cheung Man Po, making this a fun follow-up.
The fantasy martial arts actioner debuts on Blu-ray with a stunning, near-reference 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, showing razor-sharp details in every scene. Individual hairs are distinct, every bead and jewel in the most elaborate costumes, and the threading in other various fabrics is plainly visible. Sadly, there is a good amount of shimmering around the sharpest edges of some objects, suggesting there might have some mild sharpening applied or simply the result of the digital photography. In either case, the freshly-minted transfer arrives with pitch-perfect contrast and brilliant, crisp whites, allowing for excellent visibility in the far distance. Brightness levels are also spot-on, delivering rich, silky blacks in the White Bone Demon's elegant dresses and dark, penetrating shadows that don't engulf the finer details. Primaries are richly saturated and continuously animated while warm secondary hues keep the presentation lively.
To battle those sneaky, shape-shifting demons, the Monkey King is equipped with four listening options: a Cantonese Dolby Atmos track, a Mandarin DTS-HD MA 5.1 version and a pair of stereo soundtracks in either language. As one might easily guess, the Atmos option stands supreme although the DTS-HD choice is not that far off. In either case, the surrounds are given a healthy workout, delivering lots of discrete effects, such as the sounds of wildlife or the blowing wind. Action sequences also come with a great collection of activity, as noises and debris fly in every which direction. Many of those same sounds bleed into the overhead channels in the object-based format, creating a satisfying dome-like effect. Imaging feels wide and expansive with excellent channel balance and superb detailed clarity in the mid-range, yet the overall design is never pushed hard into the upper frequencies. Low bass is highly responsive with a few wall-rattling moments that provide the action with a weighty presence. With well prioritized dialogue throughout, the Atmos track wins.
Well Go Entertainment brings the fantasy actioner to Blu-ray housed inside a blue, eco-vortex keepcase with a slipcover and a pair of supplements. The heftiest of the two is a fifteen-minute EPK-like piece covering various aspects of the production simply titled Making of (HD). The whole package is completed with a two-minute Theatrical Trailer.
Picking up 500 years after the events of the first installment where Sun Wukong remains imprisoned under Five Fingers Mountain, The Monkey King 2 is a surprising improvement over its predecessor, which wasn't bad, just odd childish and uninteresting. Based on the Chinese mythology told in the classic novel Journey to the West, the fantasy actioner is darker, more brooding telling of the next chapter in the adventures of Sun Wukong, and the movie is all the better for it. The Blu-ray arrives with a stunning picture quality and an excellent audio presentation, sure to please fans. However, the light selection of supplements might have some reconsidering and may want to give it a Rent before deciding to purchase.