In China, the release of a new film or TV show based on Journey to the West, the epic mythological text and one of the cornerstones of Chinese literature, must come with all the excitement of the installation of a new telephone pole. The damn thing’s been adapted into films, tv shows, anime, video games, comics, beach towels, low-fat yogurts, office shelving units, and ok maybe I’m making some of these up, but the point stands that Journey to the West is about as ubiquitous in that part of the world as the Epicanthic fold. But oh-ho! This new version, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is co-directed by Stephen Chow, the same Stephen Chow responsible for Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, and who starred in the Chinese Odyssey movies, which in some circles probably garnered a reaction akin to if they also announced the actual Monkey King had descended from heaven to star in the thing, though thankfully the reality comes with far fewer massive theological upheaval.
The film is actually more of a prequel to the actual Journey to the West story, focusing on the story of Xuan Zang, a novice demon hunter who prefers a more pacifist method than his peers, preferring to try and cleanse demons of their evil impulses rather than kill them. Personally I’d prefer for the harsh approach when a giant pig demon is on the loose turning people into man-brochettes, somehow I don’t think reading it lullabies would be the tactic I’d choose, but whatever works for you, I suppose. After one demon proves particularly tenacious, even escaping crack demon hunter Miss Duan (who spends the majority of her screen time trying to get into Zang’s pants, in what would seem like an interesting bit of role reversal to most Western audiences, but is really pretty common in this sort of thing) Zang is advised by his master that the best course of action is to find and tame the legendary Monkey King, the king of demons who was imprisoned by the Buddha deep beneath a mountain. To those familiar with the Monkey King, this is an idea on par with using an atomic warhead open a beer bottle, and unsurprisingly ends with just as many people having their internal organs liquefied.
Despite staying entirely behind the camera, Chow’s comic sensibilities are still felt through and through. The film starts with a slightly overly-long sequence involving a giant sea-creature menacing a fishing village, and the scene is rife with sight gags, over-the-top slapstick sequences and the kind of absurdity that Chow’s fans have come to expect. The action scenes are generally very creative and fun, and feel very much like something Chow cooked up after a marathon of Shaw Brothers movies and Looney Toons shorts.
Of course, the major problem with the comedy element is that anyone familiar with Chow’s earlier work may find themselves disappointed by leading man Zhang Wen, who despite being a very capable comedic actor, more often than not just made me wish Chow himself was in the part. Of course I found myself missing him more in than one role, but more on that later.
Another major blemish I found it hard to look past were the special effects, with made heavy use of the kind of CGI you’d see on an early Playstation 2 game. Now normally I’m not really one to harp on special effects quality, my motto has always been that it should be the creativity of the effects that counts…but even I have my limits. I mean, this wasn’t a small film in China, this was a major studio production, and when even basic effects like bluescreens look like a previsualization that got left in by accident, it gets a bit hard not to cry bullshit, especially when similar effects-laden fantasy films like 2011’s The Sorcerer and the White Snake looked about a million times better two years ago.
Of course, for a lot of people the make or break of the film will be its depiction of the Monkey King, one of, if not THE most beloved characters in that part of the world, here played by actor Ge Hang Yu. Yu honestly seems do be doing his best when he finally appears as the Monkey King in the film’s action laden finale, but he’s clearly struggling to emote beneath the excessive prosthetics and costuming piled on top of his small frame, and he can barely manage much more in the way of facial expression beyond several degrees of angry snarl, like he’s constantly in the midst of having a small creature gnaw his wedding tackle off. His movements seem stiff and restrictive, and the inevitable comparison to Chow’s own turn as the Monkey King at the end of A Chinese Odyssey Part 2, which managed to bring a lot more body language and expression to the character, will leave Yu’s performance wanting for a lot of fans, myself included.
Fans of this kind of shindig will probably find a lot to like in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The action scenes are often memorable and creative, the comedic sequences bear all of Stephen Chow’s fingerprints and it’s not without a good degree of heart. But at the same time, things like the somewhat unimpressive or at least un-memorble Monkey King scenes probably won’t put this at the top of many Monkey King aficionados’ lists. For casual movie fans, the quality of the special effects may be a turn-off, but the movie will hopefully prove interesting enough to turn them on to a better Monkey King movie.