Now here is a film I was pretty excited about for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is another film using the “Journey To The West” novel, and secondly as it marks the return of Stephen Chow after a far too long break. Chow of course has been here before with the “Chinese Odyssey” films, but just to make sure we aren’t fooled into thinking this one has anything whatsoever to do with those movies, he is not only not in front of the camera at all, but he shares directing duties with Derek Kwok (who made the rather fabulous “Gallants”). Can Chow have success going back to this well? Or would it suffer from his more distance involvement?
So the clumsily titled “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” is at its core, the story of trainee Demon Hunter Chen Xuanzhang (Wen Zhang), as he faces up against a number of Demons that are troubling the countryside. His problem is that he is pretty efficient at sniffing them out, but his training has taught him that these Demons are usually humans that have been badly wronged, and that despite their horrific appearance and actions, are actually decent people underneath it all, so once they are becalmed, he needs to uncover their gentler sides, by singing them Nursery Rhymes. This doesn’t seem to be working very well for him, and he is usually beaten to the punch (literally) by the far more physically-minded Duan (Shu Qi). Duan maybe initially dismissive about our hero, but once she realises his intentions and general goodness, she becomes utterly besotted by him. Xuanzhang is immune to her charms, as he has dedicated himself to following a Buddhist path to find greater love (i.e. love of the world and creation) rather than lesser love (i.e. Human love and affection). When Pig Demon KL Hog appears to be a bigger menace than even the two of them together can defeat, they search out the aid of the imprisoned Monkey King, Sun Wukong (Huang Bo in his human aspect, Ge Hangyu in his shorter Monkey form). Of course Wukong is a trickster, and is far more interested in escaping from his prison. Can our Demon hunting pair save the day? Will they find love together? And just how does this feed into the story of Journey To The West?
Right, this is going to be one of those strange reviews where it looks like I am picking on all its faults. I actually really rather enjoyed the film for the most part, but it is a rather strange beast. Starting with the structure. Basically the film is just four rather long set pieces, each bookended with a small discussion about things between Xuanzhang and his Master. It is quite the most episodic film I have seen in an age. My suspicions are that this is partly born out of the dual Directorships, and I am not sure if the approach is terribly successful.
The first section is an absolute delight. The harassment of a small village by a water demon is technically marvellous, and it pays homage to films like “Jaws” and “The Host”. The set constructed is brilliant, reminding me of one of those shows that big amusement parks like to put on. It really is the best part of the film, with my criticism being it really is a touch too long.
The second section is also enjoyable, with Xuanzhang coming across a restaurant that ostensibly specialises in the most delicious Pork Dish, but is actually run by a Pig Demon called KL Hog (Chen Bingqiang), and the diners are actually on their way to being future meals. This is really a quite dark segment, and maybe harmed by a rather annoying couple that get far too much time in a pretty unfunny joke. I was also somewhat befuddled why KL Hog seems to look more like an Auton in his human form. Again though, I actually enjoyed this segment a lot.
It is the third section when the film starts to wobble. In this part Xuanzhang meets Duan’s bigger team as well as a triumverate of other more whacky Demon Hunters. It is played mostly for laughs, which is not only a real jarring change of pace when concerned with our first two segments, but it is also (and whisper this) not actually that funny at all. When the main central joke concerns Chrissie Chau attempting to teach Shu Qi how to be sexy you do wonder what is going on… Chau is a pretty girl with certain assets, but let’s face it, she isn’t going to teach Shu Qi anything about sex appeal. More disappointing is that Duan’s team have not even been mentioned in the first half of the film at all, not do they appear to exist in the final segment. Maybe if they had seeped into other parts of the film, and were used as some kind of emotional mirror for the final part, I might have more time for it.
The final section concerns itself with Xuanzhang tracking down Sun Wukong and using him to defeat KL Hog. And once that is resolved, there is the even bigger threat of Wukong being released. Some of this part is actually much fun, especially when Huang Bo is on screen (he would be my dream casting as the Monkey King). It is at times a lot of fun, and seems somewhat improvised. The problems start in the final showdown, when the film suddenly becomes a huge CGI-fest (there is plenty of CGI well used in the rest of the movie, but here it is almost like watching a computer animation, or a videogame cut sequence). It just feels really “off”, and made to look even worse with the somewhat rushed conclusion (where we see that Xuanzhang is actually Tripitaka on the beginning of his journey, and the Demons he captures are to be his side-kicks, I don’t think that really qualifies as spoilers though), which is much more old-school in its execution.
If I was a betting man, I would say that Kwok was responsible for the first two sections, and Chow for the final two. Which is a shame, as it quite possibly makes clear that Chow is the much less gifted film-maker, and actually works a heck of a lot better when he is putting his own charisma and character onto the screen to paper over the cracks in his Directorial skills.
It is also a really quite dark film, albeit one with laughs. There are a lot of deaths, and rarely for those who deserve it. I am all for a hero/heroine or a villain biting the dust, but here we have innocent children eaten and obviously the cannibalism. The portrayal of Wukong also rankles – I have always seen him as naught and disobedient, and sure a little selfish. Here though, he is cruel and violent and really evil. I am aware of the themes of redemption that are meant to be at play here, but I was very uncomfortable about how extreme these characters were. I am expecting a sequel here, but I am not sure if I can buy into the eventual lessons learned actually balancing out the extreme evil done.
In general, performances from all the cast are great. Huang Bo obviously steals the show, if criminally underused. Shu Qi (She really has had a busy year) is a huge amount of fun, pouring on her often criticised ‘manic’ style, but used here for good effect. I have to say though, that she is maybe too old for the romance angle to work, and I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get a new “Sing Girl” (especially as Shu Qui is already considered one). Wen Zhang is perfectly reasonable as the neophyte Monk/Demon Hunter, but for some reason he what he displays in Hair he lacks in Charisma here – but I think that is more to do with his character than any real failing on his part – it is just all the other characters are far more interesting.
Yet, despite the strange episodic nature of the film, it’s occasional issues with pacing (which could have really been helped by moving the third section to become the second, or even spread more throughout the film), it’s overly dark tone, and really rather upsetting portrayal of a key character, I actually had a huge amount of fun with the movie. At times it is utterly gorgeous, and even if the set pieces are too long, they are crafted well, and usually there is much to enjoy. I doubt it will ever be considered a real classic in the Journey To The West collection of films, mostly because it just lacks real charm and heart, but I can’t deny that faults aside, there is lots to enjoy here, and therefore… Recommended