Michael's Thoughts on 'The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven's Palace'
[Image: monkey-king-havoc-heavens-palace.jpg]

This is a Hong Kong movie starring Donnie Yen as the Monkey King and Yun-Fat Chow as the Jade Emperor. You can see the full cast at IMDB.

The movie is based on the opening chapters of the classic Buddhist Chinese novel, Journey To the West, which tells the story of how Buddhist monk Xuanzang traveled from China to central Asia to obtain holy texts and bring them back to Taoist China. Xuanzang was a real monk who wrote an autobiography, but Journey To the West is a fictionalized account that blends historical and mythological characters and events together. It was a very forward-looking novel when published during the 1500s.

The Monkey King is popular in Chinese film-making. I've seen several productions featuring the character, few of which remain true to the story. Western audiences may recognize the character as one played by Jet Li in 2008's The Forbidden Kingdom.

I watched The Monkey King: Havoc In Heaven's Palace on Amazon Prime but it may be available on other platforms. It looks like a made-for-family entertainment film and features a lot of CGI work. Children will almost certainly like it. Donnie Yen (who played Ip Man, the mentor of Bruce Lee, and Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One) brings the Monkey King to life in a very realistic fashion. This may be one of his most underrated roles among western audiences.

The movie follows the novel very closely in many respects. It begins with a war between the tribes of Immortals (the "gods") and Demons (also immortals) as they vie for control of heaven. The Jade Emperor defeats the Buffalo Demon King (Aaron Kwok) and condemns him to death. But Princess Iron Fan, the Jade Emperor's sister, intervenes to save the Demon King - who is her husband. The Jade Emperor exiles her and the demons to a firey mountain, forbidding them from ever attacking Heaven again.

The goddess Nu Wa sacrifices herself, turning her body into magical crystals that form a gate that protects Heaven against the demon hordes. Any demon who attempts to enter Heaven is destroyed. One crystal falls to Earth and forms an egg from which the Monkey King is born. While he is still encased in the egg a young vixen (fox girl) finds him and they become enchanted with each other. But the Buffalo Demon King takes her away and raises her up for his own purpose.

When the Monkey King is old enough the Goddess of Mercy asks Master Puti (Yitian Hai) to teach the Monkey King because he'll one day be an immortal. Puti reluctantly takes on the task but gradually comes to love the irascible character almost as a son.

Most of the story follows the Monkey King as he engages in mischief, meets various gods, and gradually falls into the path that the Buffalo Demon King sets for him. The Demon King always means to return to Heaven and take it from the Jade Emperor. He deceives whomever he must, kills whomever he must, in order to turn the Monkey King away from his destined path to become a weapon in the demons' war against the immortals.

Pretty much anyone you might feel sympathy for dies in this story. It does have a more-or-less happy ending but it sets up for a sequel (titled The Monkey King 2). I haven't watched the second movie as I write this.

I enjoyed the whole production, even though I thought early on I might abandon it because it seems like a kids' movie. Nothing wrong with kids' movies but some of them are unwatchable. This movie appeals to audiences of all ages.

As far as the acting goes, a lot of it is over the top as you would expect from a Hong Kong-style martial arts movie. The women are haughty and emotional but in many ways wiser than the men. The men are warriors, sages, and great fighters.

What is compelling about the story is the Monkey King himself. Donnie Yen just blows through past representations of the character (that I have seen) and makes it seem both silly and intelligent at the same time. He has depth. He's clever and naive at the same time. And it helps that the story introduces so many fantastic creatures from Chinese mythology.

I have no doubt there are a few inside jokes, or at least culturally specific jokes, in the dialog and some of the scenes that I don't get them. Some things seem innocuous but strangely out of place. It's hard to explain because I didn't read all the reviews and spoilers to see what Chinese viewers think of the movie.

Western audiences seem to rate it less well than eastern audiences but I think people are missing the point. This is a pure fantasy movie, adapted from an early fantasy novel. And the fact it is so faithful to the original story is a great reason for anyone to watch it. Yes, they changed some details, but you should get a solid feel for the tone of Journey To the West from this movie. In the book the Monkey King becomes one of Xuanzang's disciples and he plays a prominent role in the monk's adventures.

MYCode Guide

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