Chen Kaige delivers a change-of-pace with the enjoyable if slight martial arts fable Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Based on a novel of the same name by writer-filmmaker Xu Haofeng (The Sword Identity, the screenplay for The Grandmaster), Monk – like much of Xu's oeuvre – deconstructs the martial arts genre by taking its themes and iconography and diffusing them through an earthly lens. Taking place in 1930s China, this period comedy-adventure concerns monk He Anxia (Wang Baoqiang), who leaves his monastery and is challenged to remain true to himself while travelling through the far-from-pure secular world. He's journey is told episodically as he encounters one learned master after the other, starting with doctor Cui Daoning (Fan Wei) and moving to monk Rusong (Wang Xueqi) before settling into apprenticeships with martial artists Zhou Xiyu (Aaron Kwok) and Boss Zha (Chang Chen). Along the way, He meets many saints and sinners, witnesses both good and evil, and even becomes a sinner himself.
Each stop on He's journey brings him new knowledge and insight into the world. Through Daoning, He is introduced to lust and betrayal; through Xiyu, He encounters virtue and austerity; and through Ruson, He finds temptation and greater understanding. Rusong, in particular, brings a strong Buddhist ethos to the film, and it's easy to see how the filmmakers use these clashes between the secular and the spiritual worlds to illuminate the genre and its characters. At the same time, whatever He learns doesn't seem to have a lasting effect on his personality. He Anxin is like an innocent child who's exposed to good and bad influences, and while he sometimes registers affect from his encounters, he ultimately doesn't change all that much. In that way, He Anxin functions similar to Forrest Gump, in that the character is used to reveal and satirize aspects of the world around him. He Anxin may be the star of the movie, but the movie is perhaps not about him.
He Anxin ends up performing some dark acts himself, and should logically change as a result. However, whenever each episode starts up, He seems back to his innocent, gee-whiz self, which makes the character and narrative seem disconnected. Also, the lengthy action scenes, while genuinely entertaining, don't comment on the genre like those in The Sword Identity. That film revealed grand-sounding martial arts techniques to be pretentious and even ridiculous by showing them in a grounded, satirical manner. In Monk, the action resembles the CGI-enhanced, impactful wire-fu seen in many 21st century wuxia films, and functions mostly as audience-pleasing spectacle. There's an incongruity here in filmmaker intent and actual execution. By offering commentary on the martial arts genre and serving up cool martial arts scenes, Chen Kaige is trying to have his cake and eat it too. To compensate for this superficiality, the film offers voiceover that explicates story themes and even He Anxin's character arc – though it sometimes reaches conclusions that don't seem to match He's onscreen behavior.
These inconsistencies make Monk Comes Down the Mountain into less than it could have been, though it still qualifies as an entertaining and sometimes thoughtful spectacle. There's compelling material to be found in the juxtaposition between martial arts idealism and human reality, and the fanciful, slightly exaggerated mise-en-scène makes the darker elements (murder, blood, sin) go down easier. The actors tend to play caricatures, but they do them well, from Chang Chen’s glowering badass to Aaron Kwok’s venerable master to Lin Chiling’s adulterous wife, who's bursting with buttoned-up sexuality. While his character doesn't entirely make sense, Wang Baoqiang is perfectly cast as a smiling, wide-eyed simpleton, and Wang's ability to handle dramatic material is a large reason that the film does more than simply entertain. For Chen Kaige, Monk Comes Down the Mountain likely won't be a required stop in his filmography, but it's an unusual, unexpected and subtly worthwhile detour.