Stephen Chow revisits Journey to the West
Forty years after he first saw a cinematic version of Wu Cheng'en's classic tale, actor and director Stephen Chow Sing-chi has returned with a fresh take, writes Mathew Scott
As Stephen Chow Sing-chi strolls through his hotel suite, he casts an eye to the right and over a movie poster his public relations team has placed next to the window, and breaks into a wide smile. Yes, he admits after sitting down to talk, an obsession with Journey to the West continues to course through his veins.
This will be obvious to anyone who has seen the extended trailer for the star's latest big-screen adaptation of the famous tale, as it shows repeated scenes of Chow, with director's hat firmly in place, cajoling cast members Huang Bo, Wen Zhang and Shu Qi, and jumping around as though his inner actor is about to burst out and dominate the production.
There's also the poster, featuring an off-set shot of Chow again gesticulating, passionately, to Shu Qi. And, lastly, if any doubt remains at all, a few days after our interview a telephone call comes from out of the blue from Chow, who says he just wants to make sure - really sure - that we fully understand just how important Journey to the West is to him.
"I still scratch my head when I read it and wonder what were they eating way back then," Chow says, laughing down the line. "What did they eat that could make one man so creative? There is so much going on in this book and its themes are still universal today, even though it was written so long ago. As a filmmaker, the opportunities it gives you are almost endless."
The fruits of Chow's latest labours will be seen when Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons - which he co-directs with Derek Kwok Tsz-kin - hits the big screens in time for the Lunar New Year. It is, of course, not the first time Chow has turned to Wu Cheng'en's classic novel for inspiration. Back when his career was still on the rise, A Chinese Odyssey parts one and two (1994) helped spread his brand of moleitau (or nonsense) comedy across the region - and into the mainland, in particular, where the films became a sensation and helped establish Chow as arguably Chinese cinema's biggest star.
That Chow's flame continues to burn - even though he hasn't made a movie since the fantasy CJ7 five years ago - is reflected in that day's local newspapers, which feature coverage of his first appearance as a delegate to Guangdong's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference the day before and of the court case he is embroiled in with a former partner. As an ongoing concern, the latter is off limits, but Chow is happy to talk about his move to the fringes of the Chinese political scene - mainly because he is still not 100 per cent sure why he is there.
"I am not certain what they really expect from me, but hopefully I can learn and use what I know to help the film industry somehow. At the moment, the fact that I am there means there will be coverage in the media, but that is part of my life. There will always be attention so I am just hoping I can use it in a positive way. I think it is a good chance for me to actually do something - to make a difference."
But today, Chow is on more familiar ground, out of a suit and dressed in black from top to trainers as he relaxes quietly into a discussion that picks up on how his life was altered forever after a trip to the cinema about 40 years ago. "That was the first time I saw a version of Journey to the West on the screen," he says. "It was in grainy black and white, and it captured my attention. The imagination behind it has never really been equalled, which I think is why it is still so popular in China and around the world."
The original text, written in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), is centred around the monk Xuanzang's journey to India during the Tang dynasty (618-907), as he seeks to retrieve sacred texts on Buddha's command. That its characters - among them Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (the pig), and Sha Wujing (the water buffalo) - are constantly presented with challenges of both a moral and physical nature has allowed the story to reach down through the ages, Chow says.
"It helps too that they fight a lot of monsters. But the themes it touches on are still universal and there are many to explore. With CGI and the effects we can use, I wanted to make parts of the film like a ride in an amusement park. It really is wild. But this story also allows you to touch on more serious matters at the same time. That is part of its genius."
Chow says he has focused more on the master/student relationship between priest and disciple, and that he has been emboldened as a filmmaker by advances in digital technology, which gave him more freedom to bring Wu's vivid creations to life in 2-D and 3-D.
"The audience today is very demanding," he says. "There is a lot of pressure on you as a filmmaker to excite them with something new. Avatar changed everything; audiences now want something exciting around every corner. It is something I was thinking about all the time when making this film - what more can we do to make this exciting?"
Now, at the age of 50, Chow says he has found the business of comedy to have become quite serious. Where he once thought he instinctively knew what his audience wanted - "It was pretty much the same as me" - these days he relies more on feedback from his script collaborators. "For me, the most work in production has always gone into the script," says Chow. "I take notes, I talk a lot, I bulls*** a lot, but I am no good at actually writing things down. We tend to work things out over a long period and keep going back and forth. I guess that's why it takes me so long to get something finished."
Chow reveals he resisted the temptation to take a role in Journey to the West. "Directing is important for me now. But it is also totally yin and yang. Some days I like it and some days I hate it. But I have acted for so long, and now I am involved in the whole production so much more, I see this as what I am supposed to do.
"What I am really focused on now is quality. I could make five movies a year but I am getting old. There is not much time left, so I have to make it count. I have to do things I won't regret. But it's a bit like this film I think - there's a lot of joy but there is also a lot of torture."
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons opens on Thursday