From Shoulin Soccer to Kung Fu Hustle, Chinese film maker Steven Chow has carved a niche for himself as maker of quirky action comedies. While he may not be a household name stateside, I’ve definitely noticed his body of work and enjoyed it immensely. So when I found out that he was directing an adaptation of age old Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” a story that has fascinated me for a few years now, my excitement exceeded measurement. Today I was finally able to sit down and watch the movie, and it did not disappoint. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, despite deviating pretty heavily from the source material is various areas, is a blast to watch.
The entirety of the film, from the acting to set design, music and action, just pulsates with energy and imagination. The action is both thrilling and hilarious, and surprisingly sad at certain parts, providing a tremendous amount of heart to complement Steven Chow’s manic comedic sensibilities. The story follows a naive but well meaning Monk in quest to protect the innocent from demons and cure those demons of their evil, rather than simply destroying them. Throughout his travels he comes across various monstrous demons and other demon hunters. Eventually he seeks out the infamous Sun Wukong, aka The Monkey King (who has spent 500 years imprisoned under neath a mountain by Buddha for his crimes against the heavens) for guidance in defeating a powerful demon. But he soon discovers that the mischievous Sun Wukong is an artist of deception and will say anything to be released from his prison.
Wen Zhang is tremendously likable as the lead, the kind-hearted Buddhist monk and hunter of demons Tang Sunang (later in the story known as Trikipitaka, his holy name when he achieves enlightenment). Shu Qi is captivating and hilarious as his love interest, fellow demon hunter Miss Duan. Despite her character being made up for the movie (obviously for the purpose of providing a romantic subplot), the relationship dynamic is refreshing in that her love for Sunang (born from an admiration for his kind-hearted approach to fighting demons) is unrequited due to Sunang’s devotion to the Buddhist lifestyle (which he has interpreted as one of abstinence). Huang Bo plays the devious Monkey King with an electric physicality, charm and barely hidden menace befitting of the classic folk character.
The film is not without it’s faults: some of the comedic gags go on a bit longer than they should, which left me a bit cold to them. There is also a significant dip in production value in middle section of the film. During Sunang’s journey to the Monkey King’s mountain prison it becomes clear that the film’s budget was stretched to it’s thinnest, relying heavily on obvious green screen effects rather than the colorful sets from the first forty minutes or so. Luckily the production value regains a more grand scope when the climax comes around, resulting in a dazzling battle between the Monkey King, three demon hunters and a giant, cosmic Buddha. While it may not be particularly inventive on a narrative level, Journey to the West: Conquering here Demons is a hilarious, visually inventive martial arts epic and beautiful portrait of Chinese Buddhist Culture. I look forward to watching it again as well anything Steven Chow has to offer in future outings.