Film review: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Starring: Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, Huang Bo
Director: Stephen Chow Sing-chi, Derek Kwok Tsz-kin
Category: IIB (Cantonese)
We've come to accept Woody Allen movies without Woody Allen. But Stephen Chow Sing-chi comedies without Chow really aren't the same. The performance of the king of mo lei tau is so integral to the humour, it defines it. The jokes are just not the same without the joker.
The bigger question is whether audiences will accept it. That's hard to say with this new look at an old story. Chow already took silly swipes at the famous Chinese fable with 1995's A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora's Box and A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is his curious new reboot of the tale after declaring his acting retirement. A prequel to the legend, it begins with the monk Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang, a poor replacement for Chow's physicality and personality) still a novice and far from enlightenment. With an unruly mop of hair, he is not much help to a fishing village plagued by a giant sea demon. While others just want to kill the beast and collect the bounty, he believes the evil spirit can be reformed to become benevolent.
Much slapstick ensues as he is saved from himself by a female demon hunter (Shu Qi) who takes a liking to the naive Buddhist scholar. However, her advances are rebuffed because the idealistic monk considers physical romance a "lesser love" and is only interested in a spiritual "greater love".
As she continues to chase him, other iconic characters from the fable are introduced and given ironic twists as only Chow's sometimes puerile, sometimes genius imagination can. His signature handiwork is evident throughout, in the deranged CGI cartoon effects, the non-sequitur humour, and the prototypical protagonist who transforms from street urchin to divine eminence. There're also Chow's love of cinematic parodies. The opening sea demon is a direct riff on Jaws with martial arts thrown in.
Still, it's an odd Stephen Chow movie without Chow in the picture. Wen (above left with Shu) can't match his vintage, dry delivery, or his winking puns in Cantonese. Actually, the whole film has been dubbed from Putonghua so we're not even getting the actor's original intonations.
Most of Chow's usual Hong Kong regulars have been forsaken for a cast of mostly Putonghua performers, thus transplanting his sensibility into an even more foreign assemblage. At least Huang Bo is both hilarious and malevolent as the Monkey King. Shu Qi, though, is a bit miscast as the tomboy demon hunter. This is most obvious in a scene where her supposedly rough and tumble character has to be taught to be sexy by Chrissie Chau Sau-na.
However, much of this movie's awkwardness is in its indecisive tone between pure comedy and more serious filmmaking.
You can almost sense Chow's desire to create something meaningful but know his fans still expect the zany and absurd to ring in the Lunar New Year.
He has structured the film around several large set pieces designed to dazzle and amuse, but the journey as a whole lacks a dramatic purpose.
The precarious result is an enjoyable journey but it doesn't have a clear destination.
Journey To The West: Conquering the Demons opens today