“Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” (2013)
by A.J. Hakari
For a second there, it looked as though we’d lost Stephen Chow. Nary a peep has been heard from the Hong Kong filmmaker since 2008’s CJ7, after which he became attached to and subsequently dropped out of or played down his involvement in projects like The Green Hornet and the ill-fated Dragonball: Evolution. But rather than be driven into disillusionment by the Hollywood scene, he headed back home with what became the desire to adapt one of China’s greatest literary achievements. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is but one of many works inspired by the 16th century novel of the same name, which include everything from stage plays and comics to TV shows and movies (one of which, the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, even featured Chow). It’s a concept that allows Chow to freely indulge in the elements that have become his trademarks: larger than life characters, physics-defying martial arts, and special effects so defiantly silly, pointing out how fake they are is a moot point. But for as much content as Journey to the West is packed with, the lack of a true compass to guide us through all the activity makes the whole mess a doozy to endure.
Our story takes us to a time when not only were monsters a reality, men and women scoured the country to take the nasty buggers down. Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) is one such soldier, although he’s set out to vanquish demons not with his fists but with kindness, hoping that a little compassion will awaken the good in even the most evil of creatures. Unfortunately, he’s met with little luck, being outclassed in the art of monster-bashing by hunters like Duan (Shu Qi) who favor a more violent approach. Still, Zang continues on his quest unabated, trekking through China to improve his craft and find ways to vanquish evil without using brute force. Eventually, his travels bring him to the den of a pig demon, a beast too powerful for even Duan’s techniques to have any effect. With this monster roaming free and other hunters converging to get a piece of the action, Zang is even more pressed for time in his crusade to quell not only this threat but an even greater one just waiting to be unleashed, as well.
I couldn’t tell you what a revelation Chow was to a college-aged me. Having been inducted into martial arts fanhood by the work of Jackie Chan, stuff like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle blew me away, as both films came alive with a fearlessness that was matched by the cartoony natures each wore on their sleeves. But their DNA was also embedded with a touch of humanity, and even though the stories got a bit rocky when things got serious, you knew you weren’t just watching a bunch of arbitrary silliness slapped across the screen. Journey to the West (which takes place before the book’s events — hence the subtitle) begins in much the same manner, mixing its source material’s philosophical bent with the slapsticky action that many Chow fans will be expecting as the main draw. We follow Zang’s misadventures as his efforts to stay true to Buddha and combat the forces of darkness with love usually result in him getting shoved around, the intent being to admire him for not straying from his path (which comes into play when a little enlightenment is what’s needed to fight the mother of all foes towards the end). But try as he might, Chow just cannot overcome the issue of constantly clashing tones that makes Journey to the West an honestly tough watch sometimes. It’s not that getting dramatic in a story where dudes sprout giant feet to stomp on monkey monster is impossible, but the proceedings jump around so frequently from the comedic to the outright horrifying and with no rhyme or reason, catching up becomes too tiring to bother with. One scene in particular has Zang mourning the dead in a village attacked by a water demon, and hand to God, between his over-the-top bawling and the fact that children were among those mercilessly killed in the aforementioned assault, I still can’t tell if the movie was being serious or not.
Not knowing what the hell is going on is a problem that plagues Journey to the West for its entire running time. For instance, from the moment Shu Qi’s Duan shows up, you know that a romance between her and Zang is undoubtedly brewing. That’s fine, but what you don’t expect is how abrupt and incredibly forced this subplot turns out to be. The fact that Duan literally throws herself at this schmoe who has shown zero interest in her and has done nothing of note himself to earn her affection is just one of the countless aspects about this flick that firmly wedged themselves in my craw. A few brief words about her admiration for Zang’s resolve is the most explanation her lovesickness gets, and that it’s played for goofs so much throughout the story makes the serious turn it takes in the third act even harder to stomach. The humor is shockingly lifeless, serving up a selection of tacky gay jokes, tired bickering between a trio of hunters who get dropped into the plot out of nowhere, and scenes of Zang getting shoved around that do such a good job of making him look ineffectual, you start wondering just why we’re supposed to want him to succeed again. As far as the action is concerned, the fights are alright, with the stunts definitely skewing fantastic but not overwhelming the movie. Chow really blew it all on the opening battle, though, as it’s the one scene where clever choreography comes into play, whereas the visual effects team is behind the wheel for most of the remaining brawls.
I admire Chow’s seemingly boundless energy and the tenderness at the heart of this latest work of his, but Journey to the West arrives with too many things it wants to do and not enough direction to keep it all in line. It looks like I’m in the minority on this one, though, as the movie was a massive box office success in China, with reports of a sequel featuring Chow in the works (then again, they said that about Kung Fu Hustle, too, so I’ll believe it when I see it). The man’s previous pictures mean too much for me to count him out anytime soon, but Journey to the West is an endeavor whose bigness and desire to have a multitude of cakes to munch on are its greatest downfalls.