[7 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s been six years since we last saw Stephen Chow on the big screen. Co-starring in the E.T.-inspired CJ7, it appeared the famed Hong Kong action star had “gone soft,” straying slightly away from the well choreographed cartoon chaos of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle to channel his inner Spielberg. Fans still found something to enjoy, earning Chow the status of an able auteur. Since then, however, he’s been relatively inactive. Sure, he’s functioned as a producer on a few films, as well as writing one called Jump. But we’ve missed him as a presence on movie screens everywhere. Well, don’t expect Journey to the West to change that. Functioning as Producer, Director, Screenwriter, and Action Choreographer, Chow (along with help from co-director Derek Kwok) has apparently hung up his star shoes…at least, for the time being.
Instead, he uses all his obvious imagination to once again move beyond the standard martial arts effort to create something truly magical. Chow is the guiding force here, adapting of one of the greatest works of Chinese literature in his own inspired way. Those expecting a serious interpretation of the source have come to the wrong place. This is a self-described “comedic” take on the material, one filled with Chow’s standard slapstick flourishes and bows to Hollywood ballyhoo. The central story here centers on demons and demon-hunters, with a bit of spirituality and awkward romance thrown in for good measure. Indeed, what we the audience are supposed to come away with is a deeper understanding of love, as well as a knowledge that, sometimes, kindness and goodness can trump the terrible and the evil. Oh, and that Pig Demons like it when a young lady sings in the moonlight.
Our hero is Xuanzhang (Wen Zhang), a Buddhist monk who is learning to become a demon fighter. When a fishing village is tormented by a massive devil fish, he tries to help, but is soon flummoxed by a fiery female warrior named Miss Duan (Shu Qi). She uses magic and force to win over her demonic prey, while Xuanzhang prefers to use the song verses from a book of Nursery Rhymes. He believes it will bring out the good in anyone, even demons. After a visit to a famous inn unleashed a powerful pig entity, Miss Duan and Xuanzhang are at a loss for what to do. While she starts falling for our flawed, frightened lead, he is told by his Master to seek out the Monkey King (Huang Bo). Apparently, only he knows how to defeat the Pig Demon. Of course, being evil himself, this tricky human simian may have other ideas.
As with his previous efforts, Journey to the West highlights Chow’s undeniable cinematic instincts. At times, he seems to be channeling his peers (the opening fish fight feels an awful lot like an abridged version of Jaws) while in other instances, he is creating chaos that is uniquely his own. In some ways, he’s like the Quentin Tarantino of kung fu, going back through the history of the Hong Kong genre and tapping everyone from the Shaw Brothers to his contemporaries (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) for inspiration. The result is a wonderfully entertaining work which manages to be both easily approachable for the non-subtitle set as well as true to its roots in ancient Chinese customs and beliefs.
In the leads, Wen Zhang is impressive. He may not have the fighting skills necessary to carry a movie made up of pure martial arts, but Xuanzhang’s combination of naiveté, nobility, and cartoon klutziness fit right in with Chow’s intentions. He is especially good at playing passive, resorting to simple reason when there is actually a need for battle. Luckily, Shu Qi’s Miss Duan is the wire fu queen, taking advantage of her fierce persona to put a hurt on anyone who comes in contact with her magical golden ring. Capable of changing size, quantity, and quality, this enchanted object is meant to showcase a side of demon hunting outside of Xuanzhang’s more gentle approach. During the main battle with the Pig Monster, Qi’s skill set is on full display and it is impressive indeed. The rest of the cast run the gamut from animated to crazy, and back again, Chow showcases his talent with picking unusual actors and giving them hyper realistic things to do.
But it’s the overall use of CG and special effects that will surely win over Western audience. The opening fish battle is epic, as is the scuffles with the Pig Demon and the final Monkey King confront. There’s some old school ingenuity here as well, as when a heavily armored vehicle, requiring human air power to function, takes on our supernatural bore head on, and there’s a deus ex machina moment at the end that’s a real jaw dropper. Chow has clearly become enamored of eye candy, using gorgeous (fake) vistas and unusual (false) backdrops to give his efforts scope. Add in his love of old school physical comedy, the nutzoid characters, and the overall dedication to the source, and you’ve got a wonderful example of the man’s amazing abilities.
In fact, watching Journey to the West makes a viewer wish for two things. First, here’s hoping we will see more of Xuanzhang and his newly minted demon fighting cohorts in future films, and second, that Chow himself comes back to the bigs, either as part of this franchise or in some other separate film. His gifts, so prominently on display here, deserve a more frequent film airing. Back at the beginning of his career, when he was merely an actor for hire, few could imagine the visionary work he would create within the Hong Kong ideal. Now, 20 years after From Beijing with Love (his first film as a writer/director/actor), Chow appears to be in top form. While we don’t get to see him personally up there amongst the heroes and demons, his stamp is all over Journey to the West. It’s what makes this flight of fantasy so much escapist fun.