Film Review: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

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

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.