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My love of Asian movies is no surprise to anyone who’s spent five seconds on this site.  It’s an affection that has existed literally as long as I can recall knowing what film was.  Hong Kong movies hold a particular place in my heart and one of those most responsible for the claiming is Chow Sing-Chi, known to the non-Canto-speaking world as writer/director/producer/star Stephen Chow.  Chow pretty much created his own comedy genre of off-hand observational riffs, combined with a wacky sense of slapstick and fantasy, with a dose of cool pop culture reference - both regional and global - thrown in.  Basically, it’s the essence of Hong Kong itself.  Despite the definite aspects of humour specific to the HK viewer, his films have managed to reach an international audience.  Curiously, after his 2008 children’s film, CJ7, the only ensuing cinematic activity from Chow was behind the scenes, primarily as a producer.  Still gasping for sequels of his two biggest smashes, Shaolin Soccer and the global megahit, Kung Fu Hustle, fans worried whether Chow would direct and star in another film.  With Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, we get six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

A rustic fishing village in old China.  A father playfully teases his little girl about sea monsters when the pair fatefully encounter one.  The giant monster does away with a good percentage of the population before a scruffy looking youth jumps into action.  Though he doesn’t look it, Xuanzhang is an itinerant demon hunter trying to rid the world of souls transformed into horrible monsters who wreak havoc on the unassuming citizenry.  Still an apprentice at his chosen career, young Xuanzhang tries to send those troubled spirits into the ether in the kindest way, which is unfortunately not the most effective method.  This is a fact that he is shown repeatedly by other hunters, most recently by a tough, scrappy female demon-seeker whose incredible martial arts and magic skills make Xuanzhang look even more like a joke.  Tired of playing the fool, Xuanzhang sets off on his master’s advice to seek out the Monkey King, who will show him the path to being the greatest demon hunter in the world.  All Xuanzhang has to do is find the mountain where he’s been imprisoned for a few centuries and ask him nicely.  Surely the well-known trickster, incarcerated by Buddha himself, won’t try to escape or anything.

Written in the 16th century, Journey to the West is one of the great novels of China and has been adapted hundreds of times in practically every medium; paintings, opera, stage plays, music, science-fiction novels and even anime (It’s the prevailing inspiration of the internationally beloved Dragonball series).  It’s been made into many films from the silent era onwards.  This isn’t even the first adaptation by Stephen Chow.  He had a tremendous hit in Asia with A Chinese Odyssey Parts 1 and 2, where he starred as the Monkey King.  This film is more like Chow’s version of a superhero origin story; a prequel where we don’t really know who the characters will be until the end.  The introduction of Xuanzhang, the hapless, tonsorially-abundant demon hunter, is seen in the extremes of silly we expect from Chow.  When he informs the townspeople that a fraud’s dispatching of a giant manta is the wrong deadly fish, he finds himself chained and hanging over the waters for his reward as the villagers frolic happily in the newly-safe sea.  His correctness reveals itself in the appearance of a toothy CGI behemoth that looks like something out of a beautifully painted nightmare.  This sea dragon does not discriminate as to whether it eats adults, little kids or infants, and certainly has no qualm about devouring well-meaning demon hunters.  Xuanzhang selflessly gives his all to land the monster and then sees the credit for his good deeds stripped away by Miss Duan, the tougher, more experienced demon dispatcher, who is agog at Xuanzhang’s innocence and immediately drawn to it.  

Her literal rough wooing of the soft-spoken youth, who eschews earthly passions in the search for a higher love, forms a lot of the film’s comedy.  As the lethal leader of a band of fellow hunters, Miss Duan is so unused to attracting a man that her attempts to make herself over in a more feminine and alluring image for Xuanzhang end in broken bones and nosebleeds.  Far from being blinded by romance, Xuanzhang flees Miss Duan’s attentions and hightails it into the mountains where he discovers Sun Wukong, AKA the Monkey King, imprisoned.  In his human form, he’s crude and nothing like Xuanzhang imagined this prisoner of Buddha to be.  He’s even a sleazy lounge lizard when introduced to Miss Duan, who follows Xuanzhang into the cave.  The trio band together to capture a demon run amok, which enables Sun Wukong to do as he’s planned for centuries; escape his prison, return to his real monkey form and wreak havoc on the earth in vengeance against Buddha.  He begins by mowing down some of the gathered demon hunters, including one very close to Xuanzhang, which tests the young man to either turn away from his high ideals, or cling to them more closely.  Buddha isn’t about to hang back and let the fuzzy little rascal have his way, so finding a counterpart in the boy’s transcendence, Xuanzhang becomes the keeper of the mighty chimp.

The most remarkable thing about Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is also notable for a different reason, and that is the absence of Stephen Chow from the screen.  Chow has chosen not to appear in the film, which is a first for a movie he’s directed.  Good thing he cast the roles as well as he has.  Wen Zhang is perfect as the gentle, permanently befuddled Xuanzhang; his tempered delivery of Chow’s off-hand lines highlights their wit.  Earnest and unflappable in the face of all sorts of slapstick pain and degradation, Zhang keeps the character level-headed, kind and infuses him with a lot of sweetness.  As the ace demon hunter, Miss Duan, Shu Qi, who’s been a star in China for years, does her best work; surrendering her glamour girl image for broad comedy as well as performing most of the big martial arts set pieces. 

The kung fu is another area where Chow doesn’t mess around.  The choreography by Ku Huen Chiu is both thrilling and hilarious as we see not only Miss Duan’s skills, but the tough tiger-style hunter called Fist of the North Star, the surreal Almighty Foot, whose freakishly small right leg grows gigantically large in order to stomp on the competition, and there’s the magical sword-wielding Prince Important (played by the lovely superstar singer, Show Luo), an tuberculaic pretty boy with a hired retinue of flower petal throwers.  When we do ultimately see the Monkey King full on, staff in hand and clothed in Chinese opera finery, his wee stature gives no clue to his brutality in action.  Monkeys are scary little people, and this one shows no mercy to any of his opponents.  It’s hard to reckon that this whirlwind of cruelty is meant to be the same fellow as inside the cave.  As Sun Wukong, Huang Bo balances the impishness and pent-up rage of his alter-ego with the slimy spirit of an unctuous 1970s game show host.  His double talk and naughtiness further baffles the already-confused Xuanzhang until the naďve youth makes the mistake of trusting him.  Bo is a freight train of laughs; his timing and way of bending a line doesn’t allow the audience to breathe and one almost wishes he’d stayed in human form just a bit longer.  

Occasionally, the pacing does run down every now and again and there are times Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, feels longer than its 110 minutes.  There is also a noticeable gap in the spirit of the film and that might be only in my perception, but even so, I do wish that Chow himself had appeared.  The cast is incredibly adept and extremely funny - in Shu Qi’s case, more than I ever expected – but part of the joy of a Stephen Chow film is in seeing the man himself, who does have a great amount of onscreen charm, and really, who would know his work better?  Either way, the movie is very enjoyable and hopefully will entertain both longtime fans of Chow’s work and viewers who’ve never heard of him (?!).  

Still, capable as it is, and happy as I am to see it, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons feels a wee bit empty for the loss of Chow’s comedic onscreen presence.  Hopefully that will be remedied with his next film, which, with any luck, won’t take another six years to produce.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 7th, 2014

 

 

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Photos

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