Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Imaginative retelling of a 16th-century Chinese novel is both hilarious and oddly reverent.

March 6, 2014

-By Daniel Eagan


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1395408-Journey_To_The_West_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

One of the linchpins of Chinese literature, Journey to the West mixes demons, monks, cannibals and Buddha in a plot that ranges from China to India. Comedian Stephen Chow ( Kung Fu Hustle) turns the novel into a special-effects extravaganza, full of eye-popping set-pieces and cartoon-style slapstick. A return to form for Chow, whose last film was the maudlin CJ7, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons became the all-time top-grossing Chinese production when it was released in Asia last year.

Chow's script, co-written with seven screenwriters, is episodic in the extreme. Its chapter format requires some concentration, although Chinese viewers most likely know these characters by heart. Chow's version focuses on Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang), a naive monk who tries to reform demons through non-violent means—specifically, by singing to them from a book of 300 Nursery Rhymes.

He fails spectacularly, whether with a water demon known as the Sand Monk, the cannibal cook K.L. Hog (Chen Bing Qiang), or Sun Wukong (Huang Bo), the wily Monkey King. What's worse, Xuan's regularly bested by a rival demon hunter, the beautiful Duan (Shu Qi).

Early defeats bring advice from Xuan's Master (Cheng Si Han), a pickpocket and graffiti artist. Beaten, frightened, and cursed with a giant fright wig, Xuan still never gives an inch, earning grudging respect from his adversaries. In the lair of the Monkey King, his beliefs are tested as never before.

Chow tackled this story once before, in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey (1995-96). Here he offers affectionate parodies of Chinese culture, from Peking Opera to dragon dances, at times resurrecting old film genres like ghost stories and Shaw Brothers kung fu. He also includes samples of his mo lei tau or nonsense comedy, patter routines based on misunderstandings. Bystanders keep mistaking Prince Important (Show Lo) for Prince Impotent, for example.

Some skits, like an obedience spell that throws an attempted seduction off-kilter, would have fit right into an old Three Stooges short. And the intricately choreographed slapstick, staged on massive four-story sets, evokes the glory days of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Journey to the West works up an intimate and heartfelt romance between Duan and Xuan, with Taiwanese star Shu Qi especially effective as a rambunctious but tender-hearted demon slayer. Wen Zhang ( The Guillotines) is overshadowed at times by his co-stars, and while he does a pretty good imitation of Chow's performing style, he lacks the comedian's confidence and nuance. The rest of the cast is aces.

Chow has worked with similar plotlines for years—1994's Love on Delivery set the story in the fast-food industry—but his previous films tended to lose narrative focus in cascades of skits and puns. Journey to the West builds to a full-bore special-effects climax with some stunningly psychedelic imagery. But Chow never loses sight of his Buddhist themes of love, sacrifice and renewal. At times coarse, gruesome and cruel, Journey to the West is most rewarding as it stays true to its religious tenets.

Magnet is releasing Journey to the West in 2D instead of 3D, but this is still a handsome package. Chow has hinted at a sequel; in the meantime, The Monkey King, in 3D and starring Donnie Yen in the title role, just opened in Asia.


Film Review: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Imaginative retelling of a 16th-century Chinese novel is both hilarious and oddly reverent.

March 6, 2014

-By Daniel Eagan


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1395408-Journey_To_The_West_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

One of the linchpins of Chinese literature, Journey to the West mixes demons, monks, cannibals and Buddha in a plot that ranges from China to India. Comedian Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle) turns the novel into a special-effects extravaganza, full of eye-popping set-pieces and cartoon-style slapstick. A return to form for Chow, whose last film was the maudlin CJ7, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons became the all-time top-grossing Chinese production when it was released in Asia last year.

Chow's script, co-written with seven screenwriters, is episodic in the extreme. Its chapter format requires some concentration, although Chinese viewers most likely know these characters by heart. Chow's version focuses on Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang), a naive monk who tries to reform demons through non-violent means—specifically, by singing to them from a book of 300 Nursery Rhymes.

He fails spectacularly, whether with a water demon known as the Sand Monk, the cannibal cook K.L. Hog (Chen Bing Qiang), or Sun Wukong (Huang Bo), the wily Monkey King. What's worse, Xuan's regularly bested by a rival demon hunter, the beautiful Duan (Shu Qi).

Early defeats bring advice from Xuan's Master (Cheng Si Han), a pickpocket and graffiti artist. Beaten, frightened, and cursed with a giant fright wig, Xuan still never gives an inch, earning grudging respect from his adversaries. In the lair of the Monkey King, his beliefs are tested as never before.

Chow tackled this story once before, in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey (1995-96). Here he offers affectionate parodies of Chinese culture, from Peking Opera to dragon dances, at times resurrecting old film genres like ghost stories and Shaw Brothers kung fu. He also includes samples of his mo lei tau or nonsense comedy, patter routines based on misunderstandings. Bystanders keep mistaking Prince Important (Show Lo) for Prince Impotent, for example.

Some skits, like an obedience spell that throws an attempted seduction off-kilter, would have fit right into an old Three Stooges short. And the intricately choreographed slapstick, staged on massive four-story sets, evokes the glory days of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Journey to the West works up an intimate and heartfelt romance between Duan and Xuan, with Taiwanese star Shu Qi especially effective as a rambunctious but tender-hearted demon slayer. Wen Zhang (The Guillotines) is overshadowed at times by his co-stars, and while he does a pretty good imitation of Chow's performing style, he lacks the comedian's confidence and nuance. The rest of the cast is aces.

Chow has worked with similar plotlines for years—1994's Love on Delivery set the story in the fast-food industry—but his previous films tended to lose narrative focus in cascades of skits and puns. Journey to the West builds to a full-bore special-effects climax with some stunningly psychedelic imagery. But Chow never loses sight of his Buddhist themes of love, sacrifice and renewal. At times coarse, gruesome and cruel, Journey to the West is most rewarding as it stays true to its religious tenets.

Magnet is releasing Journey to the West in 2D instead of 3D, but this is still a handsome package. Chow has hinted at a sequel; in the meantime, The Monkey King, in 3D and starring Donnie Yen in the title role, just opened in Asia.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

If You Don't., I Will
Film Review: If You Don't, I Will

Anemic drama about a forever-bickering couple who do not at all get along nor emit a scintilla of chemistry. It’s a disappointing, too-lean portrait of a marriage. More »

Mr. Turner
Film Review: Mr. Turner

In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, arguably the year’s most gorgeous film, Timothy Spall etches an indelible portrait of the great painter, aided by a marvelous supporting cast who make the period spring alive. More »

Goodbye to All That
Film Review: Goodbye to All That

Angus MacLachlan’s debut feature is a small, skillfully made character piece that deftly weaves comedy and drama into an entertaining whole. More »

Song of the Sea
Film Review: Song of the Sea

A bratty boy and his mute, possibly magical sister journey through a world of fairies and wonders in this alluring selkie tale from the maker of The Secret of Kells. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Annie review
Film Review: Annie

Here’s an updated Annie for today’s entitled, tech-savvy and racially diverse generation of tweens who can easily relate to the new Annie’s love of luxurious toys. Their parents and other adults may miss the sweet innocence of the original, but they won’t be entirely bored by this frenetic new version of her classic story. More »

The H obbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Film Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After rewriting the rules for modern fantasy cinema, for the better and worse, Peter Jackson’s six-film Tolkien saga slams, bangs and shudders to a long-overdue conclusion. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here