Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Kris Wu, Kenny Lin, Yao Chen, Jelly Lin, Bao Beier, Mengke Bateer, Yang Yiwei
Runtime: 1 hr 47 mins
Rating: PG (Some Sexual References)
Released By: Sony Pictures Releasing International
Opening Day: 28 January 2017
Synopsis: Tang Monk brings 3 disciples along with him on a journey to the West. On the outside, everything seems harmonious but tension present beneath the surface; and their hearts and minds are not in agreement. After a series of demon-capturing events, the monk and his disciples gain mutual understanding of each other’s hardships and unease, and finally resolve their inner conflict, to work together to become an all-conquering demon exorcising team.Tang Monk brings 3 disciples along with him on a journey to the West. On the outside, everything seems harmonious but tension present beneath the surface; and their hearts and minds are not in agreement. After a series of demon-capturing events, the monk and his disciples gain mutual understanding of each other’s hardships and unease, and finally resolve their inner conflict, to work together to become an all-conquering demon exorcising team.
Just by the fact that ‘Journey to the West 2 (JTTW2): The Demons Strike Back’ represents the first-ever collaboration between Hong Kong cinema icons Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark should make you excited about this sequel to Chow’s 2013 fantasy comedy, which concluded with the monk Tang Sanzang embark on the titular journey to retrieve the Buddhist sutras that the classic source material is best known for. Whereas Zhang Wen played the timid and tentative Tang in the earlier movie, it is former Exo band member Kris Wu who has been cast here; ditto, not Huang Bo or Chen Bing Qiang or Lee Sheung Ching reprise their roles as Tang’s companions Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy respectively, which are now played by Hark’s latest muse Lin Gengxin, Yang Yiwei and Mengke Bateer – and just for the record, only the earlier movie’s Shu Qi returns to cameo as Miss Duan, a fellow demon exerciser whom Tang admitted being in love with only upon her accidental death at Monkey King’s hands. Oh yes, the lack of continuity is somewhat puzzling, considering how it has only been four years since and the story here follows from the earlier movie.
Yet it becomes distinctly clear during the 109-minute movie which feels like it goes on for twice as long that the much touted Chow-Hark collaboration here is really just a gimmick, as well that the almost total change in cast from the original represents not just the cash-grab intentions of this sequel but also the importance – or lack thereof – which both Chow in his capacity as writer cum producer and Hark in his as director have placed on artistic considerations. Indeed, ‘JTTW2: The Demons Strike Back’ is a witless, charmless and pointless, whose search for its own story is even more obvious than Tang’s search for the sutras and which tries copiously to use CGI to compensate for its glaring absences. Put it simply, this is an utter disappointment (especially in light of the quirky but moving ‘The Mermaid’ last year), marking one of the most humourless Chow comedies we’ve seen and an awful misstep for the 66-year-old Tsui on a second-wave of his illustrious but uneven directorial oeuvre following ‘Detective Dee’ and ‘The Taking of Tiger Mountain’.
First and fundamentally, there is no story here, meandering from a travelling circus where Tang’s attempt to show the villagers that he and his disciples are capable of magic results in total destruction of the humble village, then to an isolated compound in the woods where a female spider demon and her consorts have killed its inhabitants and are waiting to devour Tang, and lastly to a carnival-like kingdom in India where a Minister (Yao Chen) and her servile king (Bao Bei’er) bait Tang with a white-boned spirit Felicity (Jelly Lin from ‘The Mermaid’). Connecting the three acts is supposedly the rekindled resentment between Tang and Monkey King, the former still alternately crushed and angry over the death of Miss Duan and the latter boiling over the former’s hold over him (using the same ditty from the original, which again reveals this sequel’s lack of inspiration). And yet, the narrative is anything but character-driven, chiefly because Chow doesn’t develop their conflict to be anywhere near compelling or resolve it in any convincing, let alone poignant, way.
The rest really is either distraction or filler. How else would you describe Pigsy’s one-note lecherous tendencies, which sees him turn into a handsome scholarly type in front of female beauty? Or Sandy’s poisoning at the hands of one of the spider demons, which causes him to turn into a giant mucus-blowing fish similar to his introduction at the start of the first movie? Pigsy and Sandy add little to the dynamic between Tang and Monkey King, used here only as comic relief. The same can be said of the demons that they encounter along their way, the eight-legged ones leading to a battle that briefly alludes to Tang’s humanism versus Monkey King’s violence and goes no further and the subsequent no more than an excuse for Tsui to flex his CGI muscles to conjure up an epic showdown in the middle of a crashing ocean with a giant rock monkey, numerous false Buddhas and an immortal gold vulture. Worse still, that latter conclusion hints that Tang and Monkey King’s falling out to be no more than a red herring, further undermining what empathy we had invested in their onscreen relationship in the first place.
Had your measure of entertainment been premised on CGI, you would probably be squealing delightfully. Since his ‘Legend of Zu’ days, Tsui has loved creating fantasy worlds with the use of technology, and its advancements have only led him to think bigger. Visually therefore, the special effects-heavy sequences – there are two major ones in fact, the first during the spider battle and the second with the malevolently cunning Minister – are impressive, though perhaps only if you appreciate the distinction between Hollywood and Mainland cinema and see the accomplishment as that of the latter. Yet there is only so much that Tsui as a visual magician can do to salvage a movie which had very little to begin with, which we suspect was the reason why Chow decided to get someone else to do the directing (rather than bear the ignominy alone); and in turn, Tsui compensates and over-compensates with his excesses, which ultimately only underscores how empty and meaningless this whole affair is.
It is even more inexcusable seeing as how Chow is intimately familiar with the ‘Journey to the West’ tales coming off his other revisionist telling ‘A Chinese Odyssey’ in the 90s. There are hardly any bits of humour here, and even Chow’s signature tricks (such as characters calling each other ‘扑街’) become exhaustive and pandering. The cast has hardly any chemistry, especially inexcusable seeing as how Chow has always stressed finding the right actors (even those with no prior experience, like Kitty Zhang or Jelly Lin) in his movies. And there is no purpose here, given how Tang is no closer to retrieving his scriptures at the end of it and how Tang and Monkey King seem to have found closure to their differences like in the last movie. The fact that this had been a promising Chow-Tsui collaboration makes watching ‘JTTW2: The Demons Strike Back’ even more dispiriting, so just avoid this journey at all costs and go find somewhere else to walk, just anywhere else really.
(Witless, charmless and ultimately pointless, this sequel to Stephen Chow's 2013 hit is neither funny nor entertaining, notable only for Tsui Hark's visual excesses as compensation for its sheer emptiness)
Review by Gabriel Chong