The pain of being Monkey King

For hours at a go, he could not use his hands, much less use the restroom.

His skin would also be stinging, itching and blistering from hundreds of little pin-like hairs that had been glued on to complete his look as the splendid, mythical Monkey King.

But Hong Kong superstar Aaron Kwok, who plays the titular character in the new Hong Kong-Chinese fantasy flick The Monkey King 2, told reporters at the Royal Garden Hotel in Hong Kong on Monday that all the hassle and discomfort over the four months of filming was worth it.

"To have the opportunity to play the role (Sun Wukong/Monkey King) is once-in-a-lifetime, I think it was all worth it, I have no regrets," said the 50-year-old actor-singer.

This is despite the fact that Kwok is a self-professed "vain" man who is "careful with skincare" and has a strict regimen for maintaining his smooth facial skin.

"My allergy medication never left my side throughout filming," said Kwok.

His entire get-up took hours, including an hour alone just to have long fake fingernails attached.

"I couldn't do anything after that, not even go to the toilet. For drinking water, I would have to use a straw and control my intake," said Kwok, one of the four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop and a Best Actor nominee at this year's 35th Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in Port Of Call.

"When it wasn't my turn to film, I would be like a piece of wood - not moving, conserving energy, keeping my emotions in check... In so many years of acting, I've never had to do this before."

Opening here on Feb 5, the sequel to the 2014 original sees Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) getting involved in a misunderstanding with Monkey King Sun Wukong (Kwok). The White Boned Demon (Gong Li) then takes the opportunity to manipulate Tang, who is vulnerable without the help of his skilled disciple. It is based on the classic novel Journey To The West.

With lots of action sequences, sweating in his monkey gear was also an issue for Kwok.

The production crew had to use tissue paper attached to chopsticks to reach under the layers of his make-up and costume to dab his perspiration.

Having played the Bull Demon King in the first film, Kwok knew what he was getting himself into when director Soi Cheang approached him about taking on the lead role and replacing Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen from the previous instalment.

It was not the daunting make-up and costume process but an old knee injury that made him think twice.

"I partially tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at the end of 2013 during a concert... I was most worried about that because Monkey King is a character that fights well and his moves are tough and very challenging," said Kwok.

"I honestly told the director, 'I have this injury, do you think I can play this role?' And he still insisted on casting me."

Kwok, who said he has not had time to go for knee surgery to fix his ACL because of work, took lots of precautions on set to protect his injured knee.

"In a lot of the scenes, Monkey King is flying and there's special effects work, so it didn't affect me at all actually," he said.

"As long as you carefully protect the knee, try your best not to aggravate it, it is okay."

Kwok said he is happy with how filming came together and hoped viewers will like him as a "more expressive Monkey King".

"I wanted to be a Monkey King that's different," he said.


"What gave me the biggest inspiration was watching the movie series on apes (Planet Of The Apes). I was watching the apes, wondering why these animals with only emotions (and not dialogue) were able to move me."

"Then I realised that these apes were actual people with special effects laid over them... So it gave me the sudden inspiration that Monkey King actually has human characteristics, human attitudes, a human personality, and I have to use these to capture the audience's hearts."

Who's that? Oh, Him

Him Law is almost unrecognisable as the all-blue Sand Monk in The Monkey King 2.

But the dashing 31-year-old Hong Kong actor doesn't mind that his handsome, chiselled features and usually lean and lanky body are hidden under a coat of blue paint and a muscle suit.

"I get asked if I would be dissatisfied because people can't see my real appearance, but I think it is not a problem," Law told reporters at a separate interview.

"After 11 years as an actor, it is time for me to break the mould. I think it is too easy for audiences to say that I rely on my looks in my roles. This character (Sand Monk) allows people to see a different me."

With bulging biceps, an imposing set of abs, a scruffy beard and eerie blue body paint - a reference to the original Sand Monk, according to director Soi Cheang - Law delivers a refreshingly fierce, sinewy version of the Buddhist pilgrim.

"(Cheang) actually wanted me to train and bulk up for the role, but I didn't have time because of my busy work schedule, so I just ate more," he said with a laugh.

"I put on a lot of weight. I did not particularly watch my weight, but I was a lot fatter."

The whole Avatar-like makeover took six to seven hours to put together on each day of filming - the longest make-up preparation time among the characters, said Law.

And that was excluding the multiple times that re-application of the blue paint was needed when sweat got in the way.

Viewers accustomed to his well-groomed image may do a double take, but not Law's long-time girlfriend and fellow Hong Kong actress Tavia Yeung.

"She is also an actress, so she knows actors need to break out of their mould," said Law. "She knows people often think I depend on my looks, and that actors need to cast aside their appearances and try new things."

This article was first published on Feb 3, 2016.
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