- Composed by Christopher Young
- Intrada / 2016 / 75m
The second in a planned series of cinematic adaptations of Wu Cheng’en’s classic Chinese mythology Journey to the West, The Monkey King 2 moves forward several hundred years from the events depicted in the first film. Few characters return apart from the Monkey King himself (now played by Aaron Kwok rather than Donnie Yen). It was staggeringly successful at the box office and the next one’s already in production, planned for release in early 2018.
The films haven’t received much of a high profile outside China but their scores have certainly received a high profile within the film music community, the first one quite rightly considered one of the best scores of 2014 and indeed of the whole career of Christopher Young. It’s great to see him back for the sequel and I hope he continues scoring these as long as they keep making them because they are offering the composer a grand canvas to write truly colossal action/adventure epics.
As with the first score, Young has written a series of suites associated with different characters, twelve this time. Interestingly, there is little thematic carry-over (which makes sense given there is little character carry-over, I guess) but there are fragments of themes from the first score which are then taken off into different directions. The opening “Jinguzhou, The Golden Hoop” is a huge eleven-minute spectacle in which the composer introduces various ideas that will be explored further on down the line. There’s an epic action motif that clearly recalls the glorious theme that closed the composer’s exceptional Priest a few years ago, alongside it some beautiful writing for erhu and some processed throat singing (by Young himself) which is surprisingly effectivbe. “Xiyi Yaoguai, The Basilisk Demon” is even more action-packed and very exciting, though not quite with the same vibrant personality.
There’s a change of pace in “Zhu Bajie, The Pig Demon” which is the first cue with a more lighthearted feel, highlighting a much smaller ensemble of Chinese instrumental soloists. It was my least favourite aspect of the first score and it’s my least favourite of this one too, but it does add to the album experience (non-stop grandeur rarely works as well as you want it to). Some snarling brass opens “Baigujing, Lady White Bone” but the piece actually develops into something really rather tender, featuring a little duet between two ethnic strings which is really very intimate.
There is a deeply spiritual feeling to “Tang Sanzang, The Monk” – it’s still big music but certainly with an ethereal, contemplative quality which is richly rewarding. The second half of the cue retains the contemplative feel but now it’s a bit more suspenseful rather than ethereal. “Yun Hai Xi Guo, The King of Yun Hai Xi Kingdom” is very different, dark and restrained, little shafts of instrumental light glistening away against the darkness, featuring more vocals from the composer and some quite dissonant little phrases from winds and strings which culminate in something that would easily be at home in one of the composer’s signature horror scores.
We return to more melodic territory in “Jingu Bang, The Monkey King’s Staff” with a very pleasant motif being developed through the cue and best of all a heavenly choral section which reminds me a bit of James Horner. At just over three minutes, “Sha Heshang, The Sand Monk” is the shortest piece on the album and that’s a pity because it features some wonderfully energetic action material with the orchestra joined by ethnic solos in very effective fashion. “Guanyin Pusa, The Goddess of Mercy” returns to the focus to a more dreamy state, the erhu prominent once more but western strings also being used to tug (effectively, it has to be said) at the heartstrings.
Covering nearly 25 minutes, the last three cues are where The Monkey King 2 becomes truly epic. “Bianfu Yaoguai, The Bat Demon” is a huge action cue which goes through several different motifs before culminating in the same type of Ghost Rider-style orchestra with guitar and drum kit style as the similarly-sized “Niu Mo Wang, The Bull Demon King” from the first score (though it isn’t quite that good). The best cue in this score, and indeed the pair of scores, and quite possibly Young’s whole career is “Bailongma, The White Dragon Horse”, a quite monumental piece of soaring drama. It’s very simple really, a beautiful and romantic theme opening the piece before a set of variations on a short phrase that just gets bigger and bigger as it progresses – there’s such an impressive sweep as it becomes grand, colossal, epic. It’s the sort of piece that made me fall in love with film music all those years ago and it’s the sort of piece that makes me want to leap in the air and give someone a big fist-pump when it finishes (actually that’s clearly a lie, being British it is imperative that I remain seated impassively at all times). Hat’s off, Christopher Young – “Bailongma, The White Dragon Horse” is the best piece of film music of the year. There’s still time for another cue, “Sun Wukong, The Monkey King”, which shares its name with the finale of the first score and also shares the ostinato which opens it up, but if goes off in a different direction – but is similarly rousing and the John Williams-style conclusion is just gigantic.
I don’t think The Monkey King 2 is quite as good overall as the first one – it doesn’t have quite the consistent high quality – but those last two cues are the best film music of the year and would grace anyone’s collection, so it’s not hard to recommend the score to anyone who likes their film music to have an epic sensibility. Can’t wait for the third one…
Rating: **** 1/2
The Monkey King Christopher Young