JOURNEY TO THE WEST (西游.降魔篇) (2013)
Director: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok
Cast: Shu Qi, Huang Bo, Show Luo, Wen Zhang, Chrissie Chau, Chen Bing Qiang, Cheng Si Han, Yang Di, Lee Sheung Ching, Xing Yu, Ge Hang Yu, Fung Ming Hun, Yeung Lun
RunTime: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 7 February 2013
Synopsis: This is a world plagued by demons, who cause its human inhabitants unspeakable suffering. Young demon hunter Xuan Zang, fearlessly guided by his belief in “giving himself for the greater cause”, risks his all and conquers a water demon, a pig demon and the demon of all demons, Sun Wukong. He embraces them as his disciples, and melts them with love. Meanwhile, Xuan Zang discovers the true meaning of Greater Love himself. In order to atone for their own sins and save the common people, the four of them embark on a journey to the West that’s full of challenges....
Can any earnest Stephen Chow fan be blamed for eagerly anticipating his “Journey to the West”? Aside from the fact that it marks his first movie in four years (the last was the underwhelming "CJ7" back in 2008), it promises a return to the inimitable blend of slapstick comedy, kung fu and romance which Chow had so successfully parlayed into a winning formula in the duology “A Chinese Odyssey: Part One – Pandora’s Box” and “A Chinese Odyssey: Part Two – Cinderella” – never mind that Chow does not reprise his role as the “Monkey King” or for that matter have any starring role in this new movie.
Fortunately, Chow’s fans can rest easy – despite not having any physical presence in the movie, this “Journey” is classic Chow from the acting to the writing and to the directing, the latter two roles of which he is credited for in addition to producing the movie. And perhaps the best news of it all is that “Journey” bears none of the mediocrity of “CJ7”; instead, Chow returns to the sheer inspired inanity and hilarity of “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle”, so be prepared to be rib-tickled silly by the misadventures of Miss Duan (Shu Qi) and Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) in demon country.
Those familiar with the classic “Journey to the West” novel will know that Xuan Zang is also known as Tripitaka, who would be entrusted by Guanyin with the mission of recovering the sacred texts together with three disciples – Monkey King, Zhu Bajie and Sand Monk. Chow leaves that tale for the inevitable sequel; rather, in this movie, he fashions in essence a prequel, where Xuan Zang is no more than an amateur demon hunter yet to attain enlightenment, Monkey King or Sun Wukong (Huang Bo) is a conniving demon imprisoned in a cave by Buddha, Zhu Bajie is a pig demon called KL Hogg (Chen Bing Qiang) who kills women lusting after handsome men, and Sand Monk (Lee Sheung Qing) is a half-fish half-beast water demon which wrecks havoc on fishing communities living near the water.
You’ll do well to remember that each demon you see on screen is of significance; otherwise you may be wondering why the screenplay, credited to Chow and seven other writers (including co-director Derek Kwok, regular collaborator Fung Chih-Chang, Sand Monk’s Lee Sheung Qing and award-winning screenwriter Ivy Kong) seems to dwell too excessively on each particular demon-slaying encounter – beginning with Sand Monk, then KL Hogg and finally to Sun Wukong. Indeed, the movie is really made up of these three distinct sequences, with the exception of one more that builds on the budding romance between Xuan Zang and his much more skilled and experienced fellow demon hunter Miss Duan.
Within that narrative structure, Chow constructs four elaborately staged battles that combine his brand of quirky humour, choreographer Ku Huen Chiu’s imaginative action and production designer Bruce Yu’s richly conceived sets with some truly impressive CGI that rivals anything you have seen so far in Chinese cinema. Thankfully, Chow doesn’t get caught up with putting on the best visual effects show; in fact, with an inspired and confident directorial hand, he balances all these elements deftly, never forgetting that his audience is expecting nothing less than his signature brand of laughs.
Right from the start, you’ll know that Chow’s comedic sensibilities are at his sharpest. He takes his time to set each scene – for instance, in the first sequence, a charlatan is seen tricking the gullible villagers into believing a giant sting ray he had blasted dead in the water was responsible for the death of one of their own and rubbishing Xuan Zang's warning that the real culprit is still in the water, so much so that when it appears, that entrance is even more dramatic. Ditto for the appearance of KL Hogg and Sun Wukong, whose appearances in full glory are again preceded by well-crafted red herrings that make the ‘revelations’ more impactful.
Chow also demonstrates an exceptional ability to juggle comedy and tragedy – here, in engineering humour amidst the deaths of others by the respective demons – and it is to his credit again that placing these two elements side by side in every sequence does not make the movie tonally jarring at any point. And of course, as with all his films, this one features his unique brand of exaggerated slapstick - like the obscenely oversized woman who comes to save the day (think “Kung Fu Hustle” and “CJ7”) or the occasional gross joke that involves some inappropriate kissing – as well as his cheeky tendencies of confounding genre stereotypes. Yes, if you love his 'mo lei tau' comedy, you'll certainly lap up the jokes here.
In place of his mug, Chow has found his proxy in the form of Mainland actor Zhang Wen. It is said that Chow shows his actors just how he expects them to act in every scene, and in the case of Zhang Wen, we are sure Chow must have showed Zhang the way he would have played the role himself. You can almost see Chow through Zhang’s rubber-faced mannerisms - and the same goes for Huang Bo, who plays the mischievous Sun Wukong with more than a hint of Stephen Chow.
Furthermore, he fashions the love story between Zhang and Shu Qi the way he and co-star Athena Chu used to in the ‘A Chinese Odyssey’ films, and there are certain recognizable shades of similarities in the relationship between Xuan Zhang/ Miss Duan and Monkey King/ Zixia in the latter. Nonetheless, Shu Qi isn’t simply a stand-in for Athena Chu – fearsome when fighting demons like an oriental Tomb Raider and yet amorous when it comes to romancing Xuan Zhang, she is thoroughly alluring from start to end in the very sexy and sassy manner we would expect from her.
So really, there’s little to worry even though you won’t see Stephen Chow in the movie – every bit of it is quintessentially Chow, and it is a return to form to the peerless comedian who has since the 2000s taken a longer leave of absence after each movie than we would like to. Like his ‘A Chinese Odyssey’ movies, this “Journey” has action, comedy, romance and the additional ingredient of CGI to ensure an alternately amusing and suspenseful and thrilling ride from start to finish. If you’re looking for some surefire entertainment this Chinese New Year, your best bet would very well be taking this “Journey to the West”.
(It doesn’t star Stephen Chow, but this “Journey to the West” is quintessentially Chow in its blend of action, comedy and romance that guarantees a rip-roaringly hilarious time perfect for the Lunar New Year season)
Review by Gabriel Chong
You might also like: