Don't be jealous of Judge Patrick Bromley's Kung Fu boogie.
It's time to kick some legendary tale.
Wu Cheng'en's 16th century story gets a wacky 21st century makeover courtesy of Stephen Chow.
Facts of the Case
When a Chinese village is attacked by a monstrous fish, Taoist priest Tang Sanzang (Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle) steps in to help stop it, insisting it's a demon that must be captured. In his efforts, he encounters beautiful demon hunter Duan (Shu Qi, The Transporter), who takes a very different approach to demon hunting—whereas Tang seeks to "reform" them by finding the goodness within them, Duan just wants to capture and kill. Together (but not really together) they set off in search of a murderous pig demon, with Duan trying to get Sanzang to love her and Sanzang not wanting any distractions as he strives for enlightenment.
What a singular filmmaker Stephen Chow is. Though he tends to work in established genres—the martial arts film, the comedy, the fantasy movie, the sports movie—the way he combines elements and mixes styles and tones at every moment make his movies feel like no one else's.
It's been 10 years since Kung Fu Hustle, which remains Chow's masterpiece (as far as I'm concerned, though I have yet to see CJ7, the film made between Kung Fu Hustle and this one), and the filmmaker has returned to the same kind of large-scale action comedy with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (released in the U.S. as just Journey to the West). It's a sprawling, messy movie that showcases Chow's usual mix of action and slapstick comedy while addressing some deeper themes—this time the teachings of Buddha and the "origins" of the Buddhist monks. In its best moments, the movie comes alive and proves to be wild fun. It also has a tendency to lurch from set piece to set piece, which leaves those spaces in between feeling long.
Consider, for example, a scene in which Duan tries to seduce Tang with the aid of a spell that allows her to be controlled like a puppet, but then her controller gets into a spat with some other characters and ends up making Duan insult and eventually beat up her would-be boyfriend. It's a funny sequence that's right in Chow's wheelhouse, mixing comedy and action choreography and making his character the put-upon target of physical pain and humiliation (exactly where he likes to put his protagonists). But it also never really pays off beyond being kind of amusing and being one more way of keeping a possible romance at bay. While it feels like the kind of scene Chow would usually continue to escalate until it's gone beyond what we would have assumed its comic potential to be, Journey to the West just lets the matter drop. Doesn't make it a bad scene, just makes it one that's not as good as I've come to expect from this filmmaker.
If the movie has a secret weapon, it's Shu Qi as the demon hunter Duan. Having only seen her American work as Jason Statham's "package" in the original The Transporter (in which she was adorable but little else), I was unfamiliar with her willingness to be completely unhinged and crazy in a role. While some might accuse her over-the-type style here to be "overacting," it matches the larger-than-life tone that Chow has created. Like the movie, her performance is completely unpredictable. And because Chow makes the choice to direct his performance inward and underplay his part (a choice that's exactly right for the character), Qi's character brings the movie roaring to life whenever she's on screen. It's bonkers.
And while the movie isn't always paced or plotted as carefully as I would have liked, the amount of imagination and energy on display cannot be denied. This is a movie that includes giant monster fish, a demon pig and a Monkey King all in equal measure. Rarely do more than a few minutes go by without some fun fantasy sequence photographed in Chow's usual lighter-than-air style—his movies are never subject to laws of physics and, in fact, derive much of their enjoyment by being specifically about how those laws are defied. Chow's budget doesn't quite match his imagination, meaning that the quality of the effects isn't what we're used to in more expensive productions (much of the CGI looks like a late-'90s Stephen Sommers movie), but if you're invested in the story the slightly cheaper quality of the effects shouldn't suck you out. It's about realizing a fantastical element of the story, not about providing spectacle.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment, one of the current leaders in independent genre cinema. The 2.35:1/1080p HD transfer of the movie is perfectly acceptable if a bit on the bland side; the colors don't pop as much as they could and there's a kind of digital smoothness to the whole thing that prevents much texture. High def is also somewhat unkind to the CG effects, leaving them to look slightly more cartoonish than they otherwise might. Still, it's a fine video presentation. There are two DTS-HD 5.1 lossless tracks provided, one in the original Mandarin and one English dub. I only listened to the Mandarin track which was solid, offering clear dialogue and some fun separation effects in the rear surround channels during the more elaborate action sequences.
The only extra features provided are some featurettes that cover different aspects of the movie or its production: "Stunts and Special Effects," "Cast and Characters," "Director Stephen Chow," "The Laughs," "Production Design" and "Choreography." They run just over 10 minutes combined. Also included is the original trailer, presented in high def.
Part historical epic, part fantasy, part action and part comedy, Journey to the West is undeniably a Stephen Chow film. Though the separate elements aren't quite as well-balanced as in his best films, there is too much breathless invention and desire to entertain not to be won over by the film. It's not going to get as many repeat spins as Kung Fu Hustle, but I'm certainly happy to have seen it.
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