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Sitting in the cinema last week, munching my Ben & Jerry’s (peanut butter cup and cookie dough, best combo ever) while I sat through the ads for December’s blockbusters, I suddenly found myself transported to somewhere very familiar. Rocky islands soaring out of the ocean? Steep-sided mountains and thick jungles? There could be no doubt that I was in Vietnam – and that this must be the trailer for Kong: Skull Island.
When I visited Vietnam in April this year, I was hot on the heels of the crew out milking filming the latest instalment in the King Kong franchise. Forewarned by our partners on the ground that I might be sharing the jungles of Quang Binh Province with Hollywood’s finest, I found myself peering through undergrowth hoping for a glimpse of them – more excited about the prospect of bumping into Samuel L Jackson than the epic caves I’d travelled there to see.
To my disappointment, I was informed that though they had been here – treading these very paths – we had missed the crew by a matter of days. I would have to make do with caves. Nevertheless, the evidence of their visit remained: the trekking headquarters proudly displayed a sign declaring itself the home of Skull Island, and as we embarked on our adventure into the wilderness, our guide pointed out spots where the crew had been filming. Here and there, the paths had been widened to allow the crew to get through with their equipment, and wooden steps had been fitted (I like to think) to prevent Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston going arse over tit in the mud.
Obviously, I spent the entirety of the Kong trailer peering past giant hairy legs and thinking ‘I recognise that rock!’ and ‘I’m sure I walked past that tree!’
King Kong history
It’s no secret that Hollywood loves a franchise, and King Kong is one of the most durable out there. The first big monkey flick, King Kong, hit our cinema screens in 1933, and was an instant classic. In the film, a movie crew travel to Kong Island and capture Kong, bringing him back to New York – where he quickly escapes and goes on the rampage. The final scene, as King Kong battles warplanes at the top of the Empire State Building, is legendary.
Since 1933, King Kong has gone through umpteen different incarnations – not just remakes (in 1976 and 2005) but sequels, prequels, spin-offs, imitations, parodies, books, comics, cartoons, games, plays and even theme park rides (and I’m sure the list goes on). Skull Island is thus just the latest in a very long line of Kong-related paraphernalia, and I think we can safely say that it won’t be the last.
Setting the scene
As I tramped through the forests of Quang Binh, I could see why they chose this place. It’s magnificent. Far from the tourist crowds, much of this region has been closed to outsiders for decades – partly due to government restrictions, and partly because much of the landscape is still peppered with unexploded ordnance leftover from the Vietnam War. This terrible legacy has had one small benefit: these jungles and mountains have almost completely escaped development, safe from the encroachment of mass tourism and now protected from harm by official mandates. Hiding within the region, moreover, are some of the world’s biggest – and most spectacular – caves, more of which are being discovered almost every year.
But Skull Island wasn’t just filmed in Quang Binh Province – the crew also headed north to Halong Bay, one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful seascapes. Dotted with over 2,000 islands, most of them uninhabited, it was the obvious choice for the home of Skull Island – and as I drifted in between the towering limestone pinnacles, the Jurassic Park theme tune playing in my mind, I couldn’t imagine anywhere better for a giant gorilla to hide.
See the film…
I don’t know if I’m going to see Kong: Skull Island. In fact, to be perfectly honest with you, it looks like a crock of overdone, unimaginative, moneyspinning Hollywood crap (but that’s just me folks – feel free to disagree). But despite my misgivings, I’m sorely tempted to see it – if only for the scenery, and for the excitement of spotting that rock that I might have sat on (or it looks just like it, I swear). After all, whatever rubbish Hollywood churns out these days, it certainly knows a good location when it sees it.
Kong: Skull Island comes out in theatres in March 2017, should my ringing endorsement have prompted you to see it. Alternatively, go in search of the big ape yourself and head out to Vietnam! Now that I can recommend. You can follow in the footsteps of me, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L on the Vietnam Adventure itinerary, which will have you sailing across Halong Bay and exploring the jungle caves of Quang Binh Province.