Director: Wong Jing, Billy Chung
Cast: Zheng Kai, Kitty Zhang Yu Qi, Evonne Hsieh, Mao Junjie, Law Kar Ying, Wong Cho Lam, Monica Chan
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 23 November 2017
Synopsis: In the Xuanguang Temple resides a Buddhist monk with supernatural powers named Butong (Zheng Kai). One day, Butong’s mentor, Kong, is struck by lightning and realises that he is the reincarnation of Crouching Tiger Arhat, who came to the human world to give guidance to Butong. Butong was the original Golden Child, punished by God to experience life and death one hundred times as he broke a sacred rule by falling in love with another fairy, Jade (Zhang Yu Qi). While Golden Child’s memories were erased, Jade refused to forget their love and accumulated goodwill over one hundred reincarnations…
For every gem like ‘Chasing the Dragon’, you’ll have to survive utter duds like ‘The Golden Monk’. That seems to be the pattern with Wong Jing, who is writer, producer and director of this overblown yet under-developed period fantasy drama cum romance. Pitched as an origin story to the folklore of Ji Gong, the Buddhist monk who is believed to possess supernatural powers which he used to help the poor and stand up to injustice, this origin tale marries cliched romance and screwball comedy to appalling effect. Oh yes, it is neither funny or romantic, coming across instead as a classic case of a toxic combination of bad screenwriting, terrible direction and pointless (bad) CGI bombast. It is as bad as the worst of them Wong Jing comedies, exacerbated because it has been suggested to be some sort of epic when it is all but an epic failure.
A prologue that has absolutely no basis in history tells of a chaotic time in the Southern Song Dynasty when Hangzhou was beset with demonic sightings and therefore the so-called ‘professional exorcists’ industry. One such shaman is the incongruously named Mighty Murray (Law Kar-ying), who has been summoned by a husband-and-wife couple (Wong Cho-lam and Monica Chan) to subdue a vicious toad demon. Also along for the adventure is ace demon hunter Jade (Zhang Yuqi) and the unflappable Xuanguang Temple monk Butong (Zheng Kai), both of which prove indispensable in vanquishing the demon when it appears in full form and wrecks havoc upon not just the couple’s residence but also the very town they live in. Following that opening sequence, Mighty Murray is nowhere to be seen again (in case you’re wondering just how big a role Law has in the movie), leaving the rest of the movie in the hands of Butong and Jade.
As formula would have it, Butong and Jade were once a pair of lovers in heaven who broke the Celestial Dogma by falling in love with each other, thus damned to spend the next 1000 years apart from each other. Ninety-nine reincarnations later, Jade is that close to finding her long-lost love whom she knows as the Golden Child, while Butong is none-the-wiser because his memory has been wiped. What semblance of a narrative there is has Jade looking to kill the legendary one-eyed Tianshan Monster in order to use his eye to see just who the Golden Child is in this life, while a conveniently smitten Butong receives enlightenment from his master Kong (Jim Chim) about his true being. Their reunion is however threatened by the return of an ancient powerful demon known as the Nine-sea Dragon, who together with his daughters Spidey, Snakey and Kitty (yup, that’s Wong Jing for you), intend to usurp the throne by poisoning the Emperor and just so happens to need Jade’s pure spirit to do so.
It is hardly a secret that Wong Jing’s worst tendencies are his excesses; and though his last movie proved that with the right co-directing partner such tendencies might be reined in, his regular collaborator/ stand-in Billy Chung is hardly the one to do so. That explains why the definition of eternal romance here is some couple time between Butong and Jade next to a tree bearing the Millennium Peach fruit up in the clouds, or why the definition of funny is when Butong and a female warrior literally named ‘Lonely Undefeated’ (Evonne Hsieh) mock-challenge each other to transform into Marvel superheroes (Captain America, Thor and Hulk might all line up to collect royalties) before pulling an ‘Angry Bird’ on the Tianshan Monster. One part of the movie wants to be taken absolutely seriously, another is just calling for us to treat us like a Jeffrey Lau-Stephen Chow period parody – and while the two could still hypothetically belong in the same film, Wong Jing and Billy Chung are hardly the ones who can pull off such tricky tonal and thematic shifts back and forth.
Neither for that matter is Zheng Kai a qualified stand-in for Chow, who – if this were the 90s – would surely have been cast in the role of Butong. To his credit, Zheng Kai does his level best to channel Chow in several of the ‘mo-lei-tau’ scenes, but he doesn’t quite have the comedian’s comedic timing and expressiveness. His co-star Zhang Yuqi fares even worst – not only is her performance flat, it is often incomprehensible, though admittedly the fact that she might herself be confused sometimes whether she is supposed to play it straight or tongue-in-cheek. The supporting cast are similarly lackluster despite Hsieh and Chim’s efforts to ham up their respective characters, leaving one to wonder how Law would most certainly have been a lot more entertaining than Chim in the role of Butong’s master.
Even so, ‘The Golden Monk’ has much more serious flaws that not even Chow would have been able to redeem – the jokes are stale; tonally it is all over the place; and the action is a mess of bad CGI that has little regard for scale, continuity and realism. Honestly, the last wouldn’t have mattered so much if Wong Jing had gotten the first two right, but even in the comedy suite, he seems to have lost his creative spark. There are signs that the filmmakers had intended for this to be the start of a franchise, though we can’t see why anyone would be excited for a second chapter after this muddle. Like we said at the start, for every Wong Jing gem, you’ll have to survive a couple of duds in between. This is one of them (let’s hope his next collaboration with Donnie Yen isn’t another), so you’ll be advised to wait out till he gets his mojo back.
(Wong Jing at his worst – slapdash scripting, slipshod direction and pointless CGI bombast – this period fantasy comedy is far from golden)
Review by Gabriel Chong