THE MONKEY KING 2 – Christopher Young
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Xi You Ji Zhi: Sun Wukong San Da Baigu Jing – known in English as The Monkey King 2 – is the second in the series of Chinese films based on “Journey to the West,” one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, which was written in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty by Wu Cheng En. Directed by Cheang Pou-Soi, the film continues the adventures of Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a magical stone who acquires supernatural powers. Following the events of the previous film, when he rebelled against heaven and was subsequently imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok) is released and becomes the companion of a monk named Tang Sanzang (Shaofeng Feng), who is on a journey to India on a quest for enlightenment. However, their journey is fraught with danger, not least from Baigujing, White Bone Spirit (Gong Li), a demon who seeks immortality, and believes Tang Sanzang has the power to grant it to her.
Christopher Young became attached to the first Monkey King film in 2014 when he was approached out of the blue by the film’s producers; they didn’t know Young, and he had never worked in China before, but they were fans of his work, and decided they had nothing to lose by asking. Thankfully, Young agreed to score their film, and the resulting music was the best score of that year, and one of the best works of the composer’s illustrious career. Thankfully, Young also returned to score the sequel, which builds on the palette and ideas of the first score, but takes them off into numerous new an interesting directions.
The Monkey King 2 is apparently a much more cerebral film than the first one, more concerned with matters of philosophy and religion than all-out action, and so listeners will immediately notice a similar change in tone in Young’s work. Whereas the focus of the first score was primarily on action set pieces, The Monkey King 2 often adopts a more contemplative tone, with spiritual undertones and more moments of peace and tranquility. There are still several thrilling action music sequences that recall the epic scope of the first score, but the smaller parts of this score are equally impressive for different reasons. Young’s writing for traditional Chinese instruments, gongs, and ethnic woodwinds is especially worthy of praise, as are the performances of instrumental soloists Tina Guo and Karen Han.
As was the case with the first film, The Monkey King 2 is not structured like a traditional score album, with music for specific scenes, but instead plays as a series of suites intended to reflect a particular character within the story. There are recurring instrumental, rhythmic, and textural ideas that float their way in and out of several cues, with extended passages for electric cello, erhu, a shamisen, a pipa Chinese lute, a koto Chinese zither, a dizi Chinese flute, and several different vocal effects, but you will not find much in terms of recurring thematic content pollinating across different cues. This is the same methodology Young adopted on the first Monkey King movie, and the continuation of the style allows the composer to breathe, gives him space to develop ideas, and allows him to provide musically satisfying conclusions that aren’t beholden to scene lengths or unforgiving editing.
The opening cue, “Jinguzhou, The Golden Hoop,” introduces the main recurring elements of the score, opening with a haunting erhu passage, strident and determined, underpinned by accents from the shamisen, purposeful percussion hits, strong string lines, and choral embellishments. Those familiar with Christopher Young’s back catalogue will notice stylistic references to his score for Priest from 2011, especially in the whooping trumpet lines, which anyone who knows that score will know is a good thing. The extremely unusual processed vocal effect – performed by Young himself, which he describes as ‘a sick monk’ – towards the end of the cues sounds like the speaking voice of the evil Horus guards from the movie Stargate, and is the first of many examples of the creativity Young brings to this project.
The action music is what will draw many to The Monkey King 2, and again Young delivers some memorably energetic set pieces. “Xīyì Yāoguai, The Basilisk Demon” opens with rich Wojciech Kilar-esque chord progressions and darkly hued choral textures, before developing into a nervous, jittery action sequence, full of shrieking strings, dissonant brass, metallic percussion performing bone-jangling rhythms, and abstract woodwind textures down in the mix. The subsequent “Zhu Bajie, The Pig Demon,” on the other hand, is playful, almost comedic, with pizzicato strings offset by hooting clarinets, tambourines, and ethnic Chinese instruments that prance with a light, buffoonish sensibility, perfect to encapsulate the personality of one of the traveling companions Sun Wukong picks up on the road.
Later, the sadly brief “Sha Heshang, The Sand Demon” features tempestuous string writing and unusually-metered percussion riffs, and slowly evolves into a vivid, but oddly amusing action sequence that attempts to show a touch of gravitas by introducing a bed of low, blasting brasses, but never quite succeeds in being as threatening as it seems to want to be. There is a vague Howard Shore edge in some of the horn writing in the second half of the cue, especially when the horns combine with lightly tapped metallic percussion and complementary woodwind phrasing. The big conclusive action sequence is the 11-minute epic “Biānfú Yāoguai, The Bat Demon,” which revisits the rock stylistics of the finale of the first score; the melodic ideas are different, but the overall feel is the same. Electric guitars and a modern drum kit combine with large orchestral forces and strange, highly processed electronic effects, which zoom and whine over the music, giving it a hard edge. Moments of chaos and dissonance give way to some unexpectedly elegant flute writing, as well as some heraldic Goldsmith-style horn calls, which grow in scale and fuse with the throbbing rock as the cue reaches its conclusion.
This action music is counterbalanced with a great deal of emotional writing, as well as several moments of tension and horror, which for me give this score an increased sense of sophistication over its predecessor. Whereas the first score reveled in sheer power and bravado, The Monkey King 2 feels a little more restrained, with more down time and more time to reflect between fight sequences. Two of the cues relate to the other two main characters in the film. “Tang Sanzang, The Monk” sees Young bringing reflective, solemn, spiritually emotive content to the Monkey King’s transcendental traveling companion; the erhu writing has Murder in the First levels of emotional content, the choral accents and stirring orchestral crescendoes add to the level of power, and the swirling sting figures in the second half add a Hellraiser-style level of showmanship and intensity. Conversely, “Baigujing, Lady White Bone” captures the essence and duality of the film’s primary antagonist with striking, aggressive horn writing, accompanied by tapped but insistent percussion rhythms, that gradually melt into beautifully flowing lines for strings, soft brass, breathy woodwinds, and an unusually-recorded muted erhu element which appears to have been electronically mutated and intentionally captured in mono to give the character an other-worldly sound.
“Yun Hai Xi Guó, The King of Yun Hai Xi Kingdom” sees the return of the processed vocal effects, conveying a sense of chilly uneasiness and ghostly abstraction that is heightened by a series of huge gong hits, shouting and moaning throat singers, and skittish pizzicato strings, conveying perfectly the terrifying realm where child-eating demons reside. At the other end of the scale, both “Jingu Bang, The Monkey King’s Staff” and “Guanyin Pusa, The Goddess of Mercy” feature beautiful, pastoral, soothing woodwind themes augmented by strings, the zither, and tender erhu writing that becomes swooningly romantic as it develops. “Báilóngmā, The White Dragon Horse” opens with yet more sorrowful, contemplative string writing reminiscent of the work Young did in the 1990s on scores such as Jennifer 8 and Copycat, having a similar sort of poignancy in the phrasing. However, as the cue develops, Young introduces a wonderfully rousing extrapolation on the heraldic brass writing from “Biānfú Yāoguai, The Bat Demon,” with the addition of wooden percussion and choir to give it an exultant, almost celebratory conclusion.
The final cue, “Sun Wukong, The Monkey King,” is not a restatement of the identically-named last cue from the first score, but is instead a vital and powerful summation of several of the score’s main ideas, including a clear thematic variation on Tang Sanzang’s theme. The whole thing has a sense of optimism, and features fanfare-style brasses with a stirring string counter-melody, and purposeful tapped percussion, which eventually gives way to a haunting erhu theme which plays in superb call-and-response with chromatic brass and woodwind chords, flowing strings, and liturgical choral accents. The rhythmically charged finale climaxes in a fortissimo coda that ends the score on an enormous high.
It’s still quite astonishing to me that, despite having been a prominent and high profile composer for over 30 years – at least since his breakout score for Hellraiser in 1987 – Christopher Young has never really received the mainstream acclaim his music so clearly deserves. One Golden Globe nomination and two Emmy nominations are pretty much all he has to his name, and while awards and whatnot are clearly not what matters in the bigger scheme of things, I still feel that he is grossly undervalued by the film industry at large. It’s probably to do with the type of films he is often asked to score – music for horror movies, monster flicks, sci-fi epics, and serial killer thrillers don’t receive the same sort of critical evaluation that music for more ‘serious’ films does – and The Monkey King 2 isn’t likely to change that. However, it’s absolutely apparent to me in listening to this score that Christopher Young is one of the most talented, creative, and innovative composers working anywhere in the world today, writing some of the most emotionally powerful and technically accomplished film music around. The Monkey King 2, like its predecessor, is a knockout, and easily one of the best scores of the year.
Buy the Monkey King 2 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Jinguzhou, The Golden Hoop (11:12)
- Xīyì Yāoguai, The Basilisk Demon (6:27)
- Zhu Bajie, The Pig Demon (4:12)
- Baigujing, Lady White Bone (5:32)
- Tang Sanzang, The Monk (6:13)
- Yun Hai Xi Guó, The King of Yun Hai Xi Kingdom (6:25)
- Jingu Bang, The Monkey King’s Staff (4:06)
- Sha Heshang, The Sand Demon (3:18)
- Guanyin Pusa, The Goddess of Mercy (5:20)
- Biānfú Yāoguai, The Bat Demon (10:34)
- Báilóngmā, The White Dragon Horse (5:37)
- Sun Wukong, The Monkey King (7:19)
Running Time: 75 minutes 24 seconds
Intrada ISC-158 (2016)
Music composed by Christopher Young. Conducted by Allan Wilson. Performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and the Lucnica Chorus. Orchestrations by Christopher Young, Sean McMahon, Peter Bateman, Richard Bronskill, Kostas Christides, Joohyun Park, Patrick Russ and David Shephard. Featured musical soloists Karen Han, Qi Chao, Glen Berger, Jie Ma, James Low, Reiko Obata, Tina Guo, MB Gordy, Laurence Juber, Christian Flanders and Dave Lombardo. Special vocal performances by Cindy Torroba and Christopher Young. Recorded and mixed by Peter Fuchs. Edited by Ben Schor. Album produced by Christopher Young, Max Blomgren, Jung L. Lee, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.