Sunday, August 14, 2022

Monk Comes Down the Mountain

  When the shifu of a small mountain monastery announces that due to economic troubles they will need to throw out one of the acolytes, the titular monk He Anxia starts a fight with all the other monks to prove he should stay. The fight is a knockout - fun, funny, and full of great wirework and cool moves. Once it's over, the punchline is of course that it makes the shifu realize that He Anxia is ready for the outside world, so he promptly boots him out.

 So down the mountain comes the Monk, and ends up in a 1930's style large Chinese city. Having lived in a monastery all of his life, he has no idea how to live within society; when his unwitting acrobatics cause someone to throw him some coin, he returns it, asking 'what's that for?'

 As soon as he's hungry he decides to steal some chicken from an older man. A chase ensues, and by the end the man, a local doctor takes him in. He Anxia takes to the man as a surrogate father, and gets enmeshed in his life and business: there's a young, pretty wife, a ne'er-do-well younger brother she's having an affair with, cash problems and a secret stash of money. The movie threatens to turn into a film noire for a while, but the whole thing is resolved within half an hour.

 So that whole episode living with the doctor ends up with the Monk doing something he regrets, leaving him a bit untethered. It seems a bit out of character for him, but then again, he was way out of his depth and being rash and quick to judge was an established character trait. So it kind of tracks. In any case, He repents but has no real way to make amends.
 I should probably say that up until now all this is perfectly entertaining, and surprisingly... subdued compared to other Chinese films. There's a lot of humor and melodrama, and it's definitely a lot more heightened and broad than what we're used to, but not as much as most other wuxia films.

 The real plot of the movie kicks when the Monk witnesses a young man killed by his shifu in a private martial arts duel. This fight marks a shift in the action to a more dragon-ball Z style. From there He Xia falls into an escalating series of feuds between the different students of a splintering kung-fu school; As the movie goes on the action gets even more fantastic, and soon escalates again from super-powered hand to hand combat to straight up superhero shit with people launching elemental barrages at each other. It's really good for what it is, still full of stunts, cool wire work and fun ideas, and obviously this style has its own long-standing tradition, but I much prefer the earlier, more grounded action.

The Harry Potter school of Kung Fu

 The effects... well, I'll just make the clichéd observation that Asian moviegoers sure seem more accepting of cheesy-looking CGI than we are. I mean, this seems to be a legit superproduction, and the effects are much better than usual for its genre (and leagues better than something like, say, Carter); but even a lot of the good stuff looks very artificial, and some of it is pretty bad. So if that sort of thing is a deal breaker for you, beware. The sets, cinematography, and physical effects are all great.

 The drama itself is where the movie really stumbles. It remains likeable for a while, and I think I was able to follow the plot throughout (which is not always possible for me with Wuxia movies). But it keeps changing the stakes and adding brand-new, important characters we're seemingly supposed to care about right up to the end. Poor He Anxia ends up being more and more of a bystander as other people take center  stage.
 There is at least a through line in that it's all about He Anxia's journey as a Monk, going through a bunch of different masters, and there's a lot of Buddhist mystical lessons mixed in, but I didn't find it very compelling - I did make it to the end, and enjoyed it overall, mostly from the goodwill it accrued during its tighter first half.

 It's no surprise to learn it was based on a bestseller novel*. The movie reeks of an adaptation made for those who are familiar with the material, and seems terrified of making any cuts.
 It would benefit hugely from dropping a few developments or amalgamating some characters... but no, we get a bloated mess that doesn't even cut completely extraneous scenes and subplots like a corrupt police ambush or a standalone WW1 flashback that adds absolutely nothing (except some eye-popping explosions; this is definitely a big budget movie.)
 And there are some weird asides that don't fully work either, like a weird drug trip scene (that also deforms their faces for some reason). Or a romantic interlude that is seriously not romantic.

This is your face, on drugs

 A shame it couldn't keep its scope reined in, then. It's unfair to  judge the movie for failing to be what I wanted it to be, but I don't think it really works on its own  terms either, except maybe as an attempt to map to images the contents of a book. I can't know if that's the case, but as a stand alone story it starts out strong to then fizzle away in a number of ultimately unsatisfying directions.

 *The novel was written by Xu Haofeng, an author who's since made a few martial art movies of his own I intend to watch soon-ish; I've read good things about them.

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