Stephen Chow is one of the funnier filmmakers out there. He has only directed nine feature films to date (a tiny number compared to many of his kung-fu contemporaries who regularly churn out three or four films in a year), but they are have all been notably energetic and invariably fun comedies that directly riff on old action movie tropes. Only a few of his films have been given a theatrical release in the U.S., and maybe you’ve been lucky enough to have seen Shaolin Soccer or Kung-Fu Hustle. Chow’s latest, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, is just as frenetic as his previous films, and is just as wildly imaginative and laced with his requisite amount of bonkers special effects – not to mention an overwhelmingly goofy tone – but it shows that he has developed a more sophisticated filmmaking style. I will say that this is Chow’s best film to date.
Journey to the West plays like a slapstick rendition of The Odyssey as told by a seven-year-old hopped up on Pixy Stix. It’s like a half-remembered Saturday morning cartoon, full of just as much Eastern mysticism as it is broadly comforting cartoon violence. It’s fast-paced and breathlessly fun. While it does ultimately deal with real conceits of Buddhism and achieving enlightenment, it’s not above pratfalls, awkward seduction techniques, giant foot spells (you read that right), killer pig men, giant fish monsters, mantis-style fighting, some pretty fun special effects, and several autonomous traveling bands of color-coded, kung-fu-fighting rogues that seem directly lifted from – I dunno – “The Legend of Korra,” maybe.
Dateline Zhang Wen plays a would-be monk and aspiring demon hunter named Xuan Zeng who is so comically inept, he constantly refers to a book of nursery rhymes for insight. He cannot seem to dispatch the local demons that are plaguing his land, and is constantly being rescued by a more experienced demon huntress named Duan, played by famous Taiwanese babe Shu Qi from The Transporter. I have previously seen Qi in steely actioners and a few moody dramas (she has worked with the staid filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien on a few occasions), and it’s exhilarating to learn that she is also a pretty talented comedic presence as well. Her Duan is a broad boilerplate badass, but also an appealingly funny character. Duan has fallen in love with Zeng – sworn to chastity – and her constant attempts to clumsily seduce him is a kind of sexual dynamic we don’t usually see in Western action films.
Journey to the West is an episodic picaresque epic, moving from set piece to set piece without the traditional Western screenplay-101 contrivances, allowing for a more casual, freewheeling, adventurous tone. We are introduced to colorful supporting characters, only to see them gruesomely slaughtered by demons shortly thereafter. There is a central demon to be fought – a smiling, cannibalistic pig demon named KL Hog (Bingqiang Chen) who looks a lot like Primus’ “Pork Soda” album cover – but that demon eventually gives way to a late-introduced secondary monkey demon that proves to be the real threat. I know a few of the tenets of Buddhism, but I feel one may be more on the film’s wavelength the more they know about Eastern mysticism; it may help if you know the significance of the Monkey King.
My description, however, is not capturing the true off-the-wall madcap nature of the movie. It has wall-to-wall fights, several fun CGI monsters, a land tank, sacred weapons, a sickly fighting prince named Prince Important, spells, and magic. This is a film ideally suited to one’s inner 12-year-old. Fun and raucous, but just exotic enough to feel special. It’s a film that remembers what action films are supposed to be at their hearts: big, jolly fun.