Directed by: Stephen Chow, Chin-Kin Kwok
Written by: Stephen Chow, Chin-Kin Kwok
Cast: Qi Shu, Zhang Wen, Bo Huang, Sihan Chang, Bingqiang Chen
Stephen Chow is the best. I love everything he’s ever done. Shaolin Soccer influenced my life as much as any other film. Kung Fu Hustle is nothing short of a perfect tribute to the genre while still retaining an overwhelming degree of originality. His newest film (which sadly he doesn’t appear in) may be my favorite of them all. It’s so good that I almost ordered the four volumes of source material from Amazon the moment I walked out of the theater. I decided to check a library first. Those books are not cheap. Excuse the digression let’s get back to the matter at hand. There have always been a lot of fantastic elements in Chow’s work, but Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons is his first true fantasy film. It works spectacularly.
The story is based on a book simply titled The Journey To The West. That book happens to be one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature. The original text has been adapted, translated, and used as an influence for centuries. Even Dragonball takes some hints from its mythology, and Dragonball became Dragonball Z, which may be humanity’s greatest singular achievement (I’ll accept arguments for Cap’n Crunch and pizza). The original story traces a Buddhist monk’s journey to India in search of ancient texts that will restore the religion to a state of grace in China. The monk is accompanied by four celestial beings forced to live on Earth and complete this task in order to gain forgiveness from heaven. The film focuses on the first seven of one hundred chapters, the story of the Monkey King. In the original, this section of the book is told from the Monkey King’s perspective. Not in Chow’s film. Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons deviates from the source material in many ways but clearly displays the spirit of the original work at every turn.
Now that I’ve nerded out regarding the original work, let’s talk about the movie. It begins with a stunning action sequence as a water demon terrorizes a small town. Xuan Zang (the protagonist played very Chow like by Zhang Wen) attempts to convince the town that the giant stingray caught by a Taoist monk was not the demon at all, but just a huge stingray. The townsfolk choose not to believe him and leave him strung up and useless when he is proven right by the emergence of a much scarier creature. With the help of the townspeople Xuan Zang is able to beach the creature and attempts to use his 300 rhyming songs technique (it’s just a book of lullabies) to free the good within the creature. When this fails, fellow demon hunter Miss Duan appears and quickly dispatches the beast using good old fashioned punches and a magical blanket.
I was worried that this incredible opening was a trick. That the film would rope us in with a dose of awesome and keep us there waiting for more. I was wrong. The pace is steadily fierce, and when it slows the results are always hilarious. Miss Duan falls in love with Xuan Zang who rejects her in the name of greater Buddhist love. She then concocts many plots to seduce him. These plots include a staged kidnapping that ends with a broken fake blood device spraying all over the place, and an obedience spell gone wrong in one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen.
The action keeps up too. Miss Duan and Xuan Zang fight a pig demon (not so different from the one in Princess Mononoke) who has been luring travelers to his inn in order to eat them up. Miss Duan does most of the fighting as Xuan Zang begins to lose faith in his technique. The nursery rhymes just don’t seem to work on these demons. In response to his questions Xuan Zang’s master sends him on a quest to find the Monkey King (the lord of demons who was trapped by Buddha 500 years ago) and learn the secrets from him. Xuan Zang’s time with the Monkey King makes up the films final act, and it is all expertly done.
This is a high-speed film, but the camera is patient. The shots are long enough to provide a great understanding of the beautiful environments in which the film is set. The action scenes are clear and exciting. The monsters and the myriad strange characters are all given enough screen time for you to truly get a sense of their uniqueness. Even without Stephan Chow being in the movie his fingerprints are all over it. I cannot wait for this movie to get a wide release. I’ll be first in line on opening night.