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Monk Comes Down the Mountain - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Dao shi xia shan

China 2015

Action, Drama

Chen Kaige

Wang Baoqiang
Yuen Wah
Aaron Kwok
Chang Chen
Fan Wei
Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan
Jaycee Chan
Li Xuejian
Wang Xueqi
Vaness Wu

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Monk Comes Down the Mountain

Monk Comes Down the Mountain - Film Screenshot 1

Story: He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang) is an orphan and grew up in a Buddhist monastery where he learned Kung Fu. However, his master sends him away to learn more about the world, and so Anxia leaves the mountain where he has spent his entire life and now tries to find his way around the big city. There he meets the doctor Cui Daoning (Fan Wei), who takes him in, because he used to be a monk too, but he loved women too much to continue on this path. Then, Anxia finds out that Cui's wife is cheating on him with his younger brother. Eventually, Cui gets poisoned and Anxia takes revenge for this atrocity. But soon the monk starts to feel remorse and wants to do penance. One day, though, Anxia watches how Peng Qianwu (Yuen Wah) gets defeated by his student who should therefore become Peng's successor. But Peng cowardly stabs his student in the back so that his own son (Jaycee Chan) could carry on the school. Peng himself didn't use to be his master's first choice in continuing the family's fighting style either. This role was supposed to fall to Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok), but he turned away from all that and now leads a modest life as a monk. Nevertheless, Peng still has a score to settle with him, and Anxia gets mixed up in this conflict too. When he sees Zhou in action, he immediately wants to become his student, but fate has some more obstacles in store for Anxia...

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Review: Unfortunately, "Monk Comes Down the Mountain" is one more proof I didn't need that Chen Kaige is incredibly overrated as a director. While he is extremely gifted in terms of image composition and sometimes manages to impress with great pictures, he is just not capable of bringing his visions to the screen in a coherent way. Or at least, in a way that makes you feel like you're actually watching a movie, not several short films. That being said, there are also some positive aspects about the movie. Because the (collection of) story(s) is at all points entertaining, especially since some characters are very interesting and the story's epic scale invites you to go on an exciting journey. It even gets a little philosophical as the story revolves around Buddhism and Daoism.

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It should come as no surprise that the story deals with topics such as revenge, forgiveness, atonement, and inner peace, because the movie is actually based on a novel by Xu Haofeng. That's why kung fu enthusiasts will immediately feel at home here. Unfortunately, it also explains the movie's lack of structure. As a book, it may not be problematic that the focus changes from one person to the next, and there is also enough room to build up to certain scenes so that they can bear fruit, but if you cram all that into a movie, it feels as if different episodes were randomly strung together without any transitions. Sometimes the contrast between two scenes is so strong that you suspect there is a Director's Cut out there fixing everything (but it's not), and in this version, the filmmakers had to cut out entire chapters. Needless to say, that this gets quite frustrating at a certain point.

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Of course, you might think that He Anxia is the hero of the story, but he's actually just the link between the different episodes that are passed off as a movie here. Wang Baoqiang ("Lost in Thailand") plays the somewhat dim-witted ex-monk, and his enormous naivety is the big problem with his character. At the beginning, he is actually nothing more than a trained monkey who entertains small children at the doctor's office with his acrobatic performances to make them stop crying. His character changes a bit over time as he also commits a great sin, but there is no room for real character development. For that, the movie is simply too crammed with individuals, among which there are also some stars. The most convincing is Aaron Kwok ("Project Gutenberg") as a reclusive monk. However, he doesn't show up before the second half of the movie. But Chang Chen ("The Soul") is even more fascinating in his role of the Peking Opera star, who has also mastered the Ape Strike, just like the reclusive monk. Unfortunately, a lot about him stays in the dark, even though the character would have had great potential.

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A surprisingly big role falls to Yuen Wah ("Iceman Cometh"), who you sadly don't really get to see at the center of action movies anymore. As a villain he has that certain something, and the character actually only wants the best for his son, who is played by Jaycee Chan ("Invisible Target"). Around the time of filming, Chan had some drug problems and a difficult relationship with his rather famous father Jackie. Not only does that get depicted here, but there is even a comedic (?), much too long insertion, in which the use of drugs deforms the faces of the son and Anxia, and then they do all sorts of nonsense. Maybe a disguised dig at Jaycee's problems? But how does that fit into the story? There are numerous moments like that during which you just have to scratch your head. Ideas that were just shoved into the movie, even though there is already happening too much in the first place. Actually, the movie almost seems like a biopic, which just couldn't decide whose life it wanted to focus on.

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Surprisingly, the kung fu sequences are quite entertaining and also offer a lot of wire fu. From a certain point onwards, it becomes clear that there is much more high fantasy involved here than you might have expected at first, and the special effects are not too bad. That's pretty nice at times - the Ape-Strike is actually the ability to move as fast as The Flash or Quicksilver -, but other times, it's also pretty strange, for example when Jedi-like telekinesis skills suddenly get mixed in there. And that's the key point why director Chen Kaige has to be put through the mill. "The Promise" had already been a catastrophic mess, whereas "Legend of the Demon Cat" was actually quite fun but struggled with the same narrative problems as "Monk Comes Down the Mountain". Individual parts of this movie turned out pretty good, and if you were to just zap into it, you would certainly want to keep watching. But sadly, the movie doesn't manage to tell a coherent story and all the apparent welding seams are quite disruptive. As long as Chen Kaige does not get this enormous problem under control, he should just take a little break.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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