Stephen Chow returns, in spirit if not form. The superstar actor-filmmaker is back with the familiar Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, his first film since 2008’s CJ7 and one that he doesn’t actually appear in. If that sounds disappointing, then deal with it because Journey to the West is still an entertaining film that’s worthy of the Stephen Chow brand. Chow is listed as writer, producer and co-director (alongside Derek Kwok of Gallants), which should be reassuring since the films on which he’s performed the same duties have generally been good. Also, Journey to the West features such an inspired collection of actors that it’s hard to imagine that the film really had any room for Stephen Chow. His presence is so iconic and comes with so many expectations that he would only overshadow the other actors and rob them of the spotlight they deserve.
Like his previous Chinese Odyssey films, Journey to the West is a reworking of the Monkey King legend, this time containing even more of Chow’s particular obsessions. The film opens at a fishing village where demon hunter Chen Xuanzhang (Wen Zhang) fails at subduing a deadly water demon. Luckily for the village, Xuanzhang is upstaged by a far more skilled demon hunter, Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who bears the “Infinite Flying Ring”, a size-shifting golden ring that can multiply itself and cut through her foes. Despite being embarrassed, Xuanzhang continues his quest to honor the “Greater Love”, i.e., the love for all of creation and perhaps even demons themselves. Meanwhile, Miss Duan pursues the “Lesser Love” , i.e., the one involving physical intimacy and all that icky stuff. The problem: the target of her lesser love is none other than the chaste Chen Xuanzhang.
Xuanzhang and Duan’s would-be romance forms the film’s emotional thread, complemented by a more kinetic storyline involving the murderous pig demon KL Hog. Xuanzhang seeks to stop KL Hog and looks for help from the imprisoned Sun Wukong (Huang Bo) a.k.a. The Monkey King, who has been imprisoned for five hundred years beneath a mountain for his offenses against Heaven. Wukong is a humbled but not fully tamed demon, and the inevitable recipient of Xuanzhang’s greater love. If you know your Monkey King lore, then you should realize that Journey to the West is the story of how Xuanzhang becomes the divine monk Tripitaka, who eventually takes Sun Wukong as his disciple in order to travel west in search of Buddhist scriptures. Essentially, this is Tripitaka Begins – except with an important lesson on how lesser love informs Tripitaka’s ultimate transformation into Buddha’s earthly avatar.
Chow is a little late to this party; Jeff Lau performed a similar “lesser love” riff on the Tripitaka character in 2005’s A Chinese Tall Story. But most audiences probably didn’t see that film, and Journey to the West hits enough high points to make it worthwhile for those who did. The opening at the fishing village is phenomenal, offering peril, emotion and surprise through strong direction and comic timing in addition to solid CGI and choreography. The scene goes on for a while before explaining its significance or introducing the main characters, but proves an immersive introduction to the film’s world. A subsequent scene at KL Hog’s inn/abattoir is also a show-stopper, mixing visual effects with horrific imagery and sharp tension. Both are strong set pieces that anchor the film but they also make it uneven as they’re better than the majority of action sequences that follow and their considerable length noticeably slows the film’s pace.
As a collection of set pieces, Journey to the West is nearly without peer, but as a complete, developed narrative film it doesn’t fully gel. Despite the presence of demons and death, the stakes are difficult to discern and tension does not rise effectively. The appearance of Sun Wukong corrects this somewhat, as the threat of his freedom is adequately telegraphed. However, the film’s version of the true Monkey King is underwhelming as the character lacks his usual endearing impishness and charisma. This is partially acceptable since the film is a reworking of the Monkey King legend, and even invents an alternate origin for his restrictive golden headband. But this Monkey King’s evil and murderous portrayal is off-putting, and there are portions that make no sense, like when his indestructible golden staff is destroyed and then inexplicably reappears – a lazy detail that Chow should be above.
Also lazy: the CGI-overkill ending, which references Dragonball, previous Stephen Chow films, and even video games, as evidenced by one sequence that’s lifted directly from the Playstation 3 game Asura’s Wrath. Whereas earlier set pieces mix CGI, actors and choreographed action, the climax is pretty much a CGI orgy that’s not technically convincing – and it doesn’t compensate with any low-tech Hong Kong Cinema charm either. The protracted climax is filled with familiar Chow signifiers, from anime influences to manga tropes to old-fashioned mo lei tau. And yet this over-reliance on CGI – and derivative CGI at that – mars the film’s more inspired moments. Considering the Asura’s Wrath connection, Journey to the West literally ends with a videogame cutscene! Given the wealth of talent both in front of and behind the camera, Journey to the West’s over-reliance on CGI is deflating.
The actors are a huge lift, however. Wen Zhang, so good in everything from Ocean Heaven to Love is Not Blind, possesses the deadpan demeanor and endearing innocence suitable for a Stephen Chow hero, and he’s a pretty good dancer too. One funny segment involves Xuanzhang’s body being controlled by Miss Duan’s sexy sister (Chrissie Chau), and Wen’s seductive dancing is actually better than Chau’s. Shu Q utilizes her entire acting arsenal here, from delightful girlishness to earnest affection to felt emotion. Multi-talented Huang Bo is a terrific choice as the human aspect of Sun Wukong (and not the full-powered Monkey King – he’s played by a shorter guy in a monkey suit), and Taiwan singer Show Luo does a killer Stephen Chow impression as sickly demon hunter Prince Handsome. The supporting cast is funny and self-effacing, and a few notable players from previous Chow films make appearances.
Note to parents: Journey to the West is surprisingly dark, with disturbing imagery and many unfunny deaths. Those taking kids to “that Stephen Chow movie with the talking monkey” should beware, and everyone else simply shouldn’t expect Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle. Unlike those classics, this latest Stephen Chow film doesn’t raise Chinese commercial cinema to a new level, but it’s smart, funny and exemplary as populist fare. The sight gags and dry comic asides are as enjoyable as anything from Chow’s accomplished filmography, and the themes of devoted love and irreconcilable regret – two concepts that Chow frequently obsesses over – strike the proper emotional chords. While it’s sad that Stephen Chow has apparently given up performing, his work behind the camera inspires plenty of confidence, and if further adventures of Wen Zhang and Huang Bo tripping to the west are in the offing, then the line forms to the left. Just work faster, Mr. Chow. You’re not getting any younger.