Written by guest contributor Brian Roe
Stephen Chow’s previous films, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, are both over the top cartoons that happen to be set in the real world. They use a multitude of pop culture references both from Chow’s native China and from sources all over the world. But even with so many disparate elements Chow keeps them focused and tight, never sacrificing story for effects or comedy.
This is not quite the case with his 2013 film Journey to the West: Conquering The Demons which is now on Netflix. Perhaps because it is based on a true classic of Chinese literature, Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, there doesn’t seem to be as much exposition or explanation that might guide non-Chinese viewers along. This is not a deal breaker however, and those who are willing to play along until things sort themselves out will be rewarded by a film that is at once ridiculous, touching, and awesome in the truest sense.
The film begins in a Chinese fishing village that seems to be having problems with a “Fish Demon”. Two rival demon hunters show up and are immediately at odds about what the real threat is. Over the top stunts and ambitious use of CGI abound in this sequence but child safety seems to not be as much of an issue. There are several occurrences in this segment that would probably have been changed if the film had been made in The U.S., namely the killing of children and bereaved parents alongside wacky hi-jinks. Maybe the Chinese are able to reconcile these two moods at the same time but it creates a strange tonal flip flopping that takes some getting used to.
One of the demon hunters, which seems to be a fairly common occupation in this world, is the young Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen). He manages to beach the fish-demon who then reverts to being a scrawny, somewhat cowed young man. Zang’s methods differ greatly from the traditional demon hunting methods of “Shock and Awe” and instead rely on calm attempts to bring the good out of the demons by peaceful means such as new age flute music and children’s nursery rhymes. Unused to these more huggy-feely methods the fish-demon again begins to attack young Zang.
Luckily he is rescued by the tough but beautiful demon hunter Duan (Shu Qi). Duan makes very short work of the fish-demon and quickly takes a shine to Zang. She flirts with him openly but the poor dumb bastard is devoted to Buddha and considers romance to be a lower form of love than the absolute goal of reaching nirvana. Dimwit.
Shu Qi is excellent in this. One minute tough and arrogant, the next adorably smitten, she goes back and forth without ever losing her sense of humor or seeming out of control of the situation. Her repeated attempts to woo Zang eventually climb to absurd levels and his inability to feel anything for her makes him seem more like a robot than a devout follower of Buddha.
Although the pacing and tone seem sometimes to be at odds with the overall story everything is wrapped up in a pretty perfect package that manages to combine gravitas, loss, and a use of CGI that seems to be a dare to other filmmakers. Seriously, I can’t think of another film that has brought such a massive scale to a single palm slap. Anyone working on a movie featuring Galactus should really consider the final quarter of this movie to be required viewing.
One of the only things missing is Chow himself who is such a screen presence that it seems odd that he’s not playing a role. Maybe he’ll show up in the sequel.
There is a lot to love about Journey to the West. From its completely ballsy use of digital effects, solid wire-work fight scenes, and bonkers shenanigans, it keeps the viewer interested by throwing bucket loads of stuff on screen and seeing what sticks. Giant enraged pig demons, super sexy demon hunters, and even a clockwork battle-tank fill the movie with enough explosive imagery to keep even the most jaded video game junky sated. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Director: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok (co-Director) Run Time: 110 mins