Chen Kaige is an acclaimed Chinese filmmaker I have no familiarity with. Too classy for me, I guess. Now I finally watched one, but not one of his famous ones from the ‘80s or ‘90s, it’s his 14th film, a straight up kung fu movie from 2015 called MONK COMES DOWN THE MOUNTAIN. And the reason is because it’s based on a book by Xu Haofeng, who wrote Wong Kar Wai’s THE GRANDMASTER and directed THE SWORD IDENTITY, JUDGE ARCHER and THE FINAL MASTER. I adore his style and his themes and his two most recent (THE HIDDEN SWORD and 100 YARDS) aren’t available here yet, so I’ll take what I can get.
This is a good one but totally different from those other movies I mentioned. The ones Xu directs have a very artful economy and restraint to them, the compositions and camera movements are often very classical, the fighting styles are uniquely straightforward, often based around quick, simple movements rather than flying around all over the place. Don’t get me wrong, obviously I love flying around all over the place, but I like how distinct this other approach is.
MONK COMES DOWN THE MOUNTAIN is not that. Nor is it a TV movie starring Tony Shalhoub. It’s a big show-offy kung fu fantasy, with lots of digital FX, some of them pretty goofy. It was released in 3D Imax, and (unlike American movies, which are too cowardly to do 3D stuff in 3D movies) you can tell. And it’s often comedic in a broad, muggy kind of way. Xu’s movies tend to have a much dryer humor.
The title is not a metaphor. A temple has fallen on hard times, there’s not enough food for everybody, so they have fights to decide who can stay. The master (Li Xuejian, THE WANDERING EARTH II) tells this goofball who will be our hero, He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang, KUNG FU KILLER), to fight all the others, and he successfully beats them all, so he’s very happy. He gets to stay. He thinks.
“You won. You have talent. Pack up. You can fend for yourself,” the master says.
He’s truly not being mean, though. He knows this orphan who has only lived in the temple needs to see what the real world is like. His advice is, “Be polite and work hard. Practice your kung fu. Don’t let trouble scare you… Remember this: Some will do anything to succeed. But a hero stays true to himself.”
So the monk comes down the mountain. I was surprised to see cars in the city, thought it was an M. Night Shyamalan type twist for a second, but it’s the 1930s. It’s still a period piece.
Anxia has no clue how anything works, including manners. He has a run-in with this guy Mr. Tsui (Fan Wei, RAILWAY HEROES) ‘cause he sees him carrying a roasted chicken home, asks him to give it to him, steals it when he says no. The guy chases him on a bicycle, crashes into some water, Anxia pulls him out. And it’s kind of like in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY when Babe saves the pitbull that was chasing him, except Mr. Tsui doesn’t become his bodyguard, he just gives him a place to stay and a job as the assistant at his pharmacy. When they get to talking Mr. Tsui seems to think Anxia is funny, and we’ll later realize that he sympathizes with him because he used to be a monk himself, but left to marry Yu Zhen (Lin Chi-Ling, RED CLIFF).
He has a hipster brother named Daorong (Vanness Wu, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, IP MAN 4: THE FINALE) who looks like 30 or so years younger than him and, Anxia discovers, is having an affair with Yu Zhen. She decides to call it off but Daorong tricks her into giving Tsui a pill that kills him. When she’s confronting Daorong about it on a fancy-ass boat he rented, suddenly it sinks, and the doors are locked from the outside. Anxia swims down like he’s gonna save her, but he doesn’t. He killed them! He goes to a temple and meditates for seven days. So there is some guilt there.
This is gonna sound crazy, but early in the movie I was pretty convinced that it was loosely based on the story of Pinocchio. He’s so naive and gullible, he even kinda moves like a marionette – hell, he (the actor, not the character) is literally on strings as he flips around on top of cars and across wires. And, I don’t know, is it just me, or do these shots remind you a little bit of settings in Disney’s PINOCCHIO?
If this is PINOCCHIO, that would make Mr. Tsui Gepetto, who can’t keep Anxia from going out into a world of moral quandaries he’s too simple to understand. And of course there’s the underwater part…
…which does not involve a whale, but does have him (very badly) misbehaving and having to learn a lesson from it. But I don’t know. Maybe I’m stretching here.
Running the pharmacy on his own, Anxia meets this guy Zhao Zinchuan (Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan, SHAOLIN SOCCER, TSUI HARK’S VAMPIRE HUNTERS, IP MAN 3–4) who knows how to do kung fu moves that cause energy blasts to shoot through the air. This is a good example of Anxia’s charming enthusiasm. When he sees it he doesn’t say “You must teach me this” or anything, he just gets a huge grin and asks “What the heck was that!?”
Turns out it’s Nine Dragons kung fu, something Zhao learned behind the back of his master Peng Qianwu (Yuen Wah, FIST OF FURY, MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG, EASTERN CONDORS, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, THE DRAGON FROM RUSSIA, THE MASTER, MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS), and uses to defeat him in a match. Peng tells him that because he won he should take over for him. Zhao hesitates, says it should be Peng’s son, but Peng insists… then he literally stabs him in the back. Man, I should’ve known from his mustache and his spider-themed robe and umbrella that he was evil. Anxia witnesses this from a rooftop, but doesn’t know what to do.
Next Anxia meets a customer named Qizi (Jaycee Chan) who keeps talking about how his dad got beat up in a championship match, then says it was a guy named Zhao that did it. Oh fuck. This guy doesn’t know his dad killed a guy for being better than him. (Uh… kind of mean to cast Jackie Chan’s son as the son who’s not good enough to take over.) Also Anxia and Qizi eat some poisoned meat that makes them both puff up and hallucinate. I had given up on my Pinocchio theory but actually this is kinda like turning into donkeys, and then they decide to get drunk and steal the collection box from a Buddhist temple, so that’s kinda like Pleasure Island.
And I guess that would mean the Blue Fairy (if not the master at the beginning) is Master Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok, CHINA STRIKE FORCE), the monk who prevents them from stealing the collections box and says he “reversed” their poisoning. I guess by using pressure points when he beat them up? Anxia begs Zhou to train him, and becomes his only student.
Okay, here’s some crazy shit that is not in any version of Pinocchio I’ve seen, though admittedly I haven’t seen THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO. This young woman Xianxing (Dong Qi, ASURA) comes to the temple and tells Anxia she’s trying to have a son and you used to be able to pray at the temple for one but it doesn’t work anymore. Anxia asks the Abbot, Rusong (Wang Xueqi, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, REIGN OF ASSASSINS, IRON MAN THREE) about it, and he indicates that the monks there used to impregnate the women who prayed for babies, until he put a stop to it.
“I don’t know what that even means. I just want to help her,” Anxia says. So he tells her what he learned and she shows him an erotic adventure.
Despite all the life long feuds and fights over heirs and stuff that Anxia runs into, he mostly stays out of it. I guess he does get involved in a vengeance plot at the end, but it all gets wrapped up. I think he’ll spend the rest of his life laughing and learning. At the end he doesn’t wish upon a star, but he looks up at the moon, something his Blue Fairy, Master Zhou, told him humans do with a glint of sun in their eye. (Long story.)
Anyway, I’m not saying it’s PINOCCHIO good, or THE GRANDMASTER good, or Xu Haofeng movie good, but it’s a fun time. There are small roles for Lam Suet (STORY OF RICKY) as the police commissioner and Tiger Chen (MAN OF TAI CHI) as one of his thugs who fights against Zhou’s war buddy Boss Zha (Chang Chen, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, THE GRANDMASTER, DUNE).
It’s definitely one of those big budget mainland Chinese movies. You get some pretty cheesy flourishes, like a montage of animated swinging monkeys and blooming flowers and stuff while Master Zhou is philosophizing about life. I didn’t need that, but I appreciate them having the resources to do everything big, including giant soundstages for beautiful sets of temples, the pharmacy, and whole city blocks.
Also I’m a sucker for this fantastical approach to martial arts. The Master Peng vs. Zhao fight takes place on a basketball court in the rain, they leap onto and slide across a wire in ways that circus tightrope walkers wouldn’t even be able to. Master Zhao hits a fly with the tip of a broom handle, spins Anxia and Qizi around creating a yin yang on the floor. Peng can zip around like The Flash. They run up flag poles, leap across roof tops, kick debris and cg embers at each other, hang upside down from rafters. When Peng uses Nine Dragons to explode a statue in their faces, Zhou quickly sweeps up a swirling cloud of leaves that deflect the rocks. Then he slashes Peng’s robe to ribbons with the broom. The action choreographer is Ku Huen Chiu (ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II, IRON MONKEY, THE MERMAID, SHADOW).
I’m not sure, but it sounds like the book may be even further away from Xu’s movies, because a review by Maggie Lee in Variety says this adaptation left out “such outre figures as Japanese ninjas, Nazi scientists and Tibetan gurus.” What’s left in is wild enough, but as tonally and stylistically different as this is from the Xu Haofeng I know, there are definite signs of him in there. There’s the theme of sons being expected to carry on their father’s traditions, including fighting styles. Master Zhou has never met Qizi but immediately clocks him as Peng’s son because he recognizes his kung fu style. Peng murdering his student for being better than his son turns out to be a response to his father having chosen a student to pass down his Ape Strike kung fu style instead of Peng. That student was Zhou, which is why Peng hates him, and also why Zhou is a recluse – he was like “I don’t want to be mixed up in this father-son drama” and left town.
Zhou also philosophizes poetically about the lessons of sweeping cherry blossoms. Flying kicks and wisdom. I love movies.