When Kaige Chen releases a film it's always a big deal. Chen belongs to the older generation of Chinese film makers, who first manifested themselves in the 80s. Through the years he grew out to be one of the ambassadors of Chinese cinema, though not all of his films found their way to the West. With Monk Comes Down the Mountain [Dao Shi Xia Shan] Chen proves he can still turn out a pretty great film, even after 30 years of service.
Monk Comes Down the Mountain follows in the footsteps of Wen Jiang's Rang Zi Dan Fei. It's not quite 90s martial arts, not quite 00s martial arts, not quite traditional action film. It's a strange mix of influences that presents itself with a rather smug smile on its face. As if the movie itself is in on the joke, seemingly uncaring of its silly posterior, but at the same time doing its utmost best to be as cool, awesome and rewarding as possible.
It's pretty great if you give the film room to explore its boundaries, but at all times Chen is working hard to maintain a precarious balance. Pretentiousness is lurking around every corner and if you're not on the same wavelength as the director then it could turn out to be a pretty horrible overall experience. Personally I don't mind a bit of ballsiness, so I ended up enjoying every minute of it, but at the same time it's easy to see how some will end up hating this film passionately.
The story is pretty much what the title promises. Based on a popular novel, the film follows a monk (He Anxia) who's being banished from the monastery he grew up in. Unaware of the world that lies outside the walls of the monastery, he descends the mountain in order to learn about the world. When he reaches the city he is taken in by a doctor who takes him as his apprentice. Things start to go south when Anxia discovers the doctor's wife is having an affair with the doctor's brother.
Films like Monk Comes Down the Mountain are big business in China nowadays and with a seasoned director overseeing the production you can be assured of getting first class visuals. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. The martial arts sequences are stylish, the setting looks warm, inviting and colorful and the décors are lush and detailed. To boot, the CG that's used doesn't look out of place, which is a big win compared to many other big budget releases coming out of China in recent years.
The soundtrack is traditionally less exciting. Not bad by all means, but ultimately forgettable and hardly worth writing about. It's not that big of a problem to be honest, Monk Comes Down the Mountain aims to entertain and does exactly that without the need for a strong, challenging soundtrack to set itself apart from its peers. Still, it's a constant that films like these have pretty dull scores, I wouldn't exactly mind seeing that challenged that for a change.
On the actors front, Chen assembled a pretty solid cast, spear-headed by Baoqiang Wang playing He Anxia. Wang's perfect for the role and has a great part in the success of Chen's undertaking. The secondary cast is pretty impressive too, with Aaron Kwok and Chen Chang putting in great performances. Jaycee Chan also makes a notable appearance (although uncredited, probably the backlash from his real-life troubles), though it's Wah Yuen who deserves the most praise. He's the film's perfect villain, quirky and mean-spirited at the same time.
A lot of the film's weight lies on the shoulders of Baoqiang Wang. Not because he has such a complex character, Anxia is little more than an excuse to set some gears in motion, but because he somewhat represents the smugness of the film. Wang plays the gullible fool, balancing his character between cutely endearing and impossibly annoying. It's a good thing Wang has these roles down to a tee, still I'm pretty confident not everyone is going to be able to stand him (and the film with him).
Monk Comes Down the Mountain is above all a very amusing film. Chen made a light-hearted, fun and playful little romp, which rises above itself thanks to its tremendous production value. If you liked Let the Bullets Fly this is is certain recommend, otherwise there are quite a few I pitfalls where it could go wrong. It's somewhat of a tough sell, but it's worth a gamble, even if it's only to keep yourself up to date with the direction of China's popular blockbusters.