CALGARY (April 24, 2014) — Journey To The West , a 16th Century Ming Dynasty fantasy fiction, is one of the Four Great Chinese Novels in classical Chinese literature. It chronicles the epic journey of Xuan Zang, Monkey King, Zhu Bajie (Pig), and Sandy Monk to bring back to China the Buddhist Sutras from India in the Tang Dynasty, the entourage arriving India in 630 A.D.
Written in classical language, the original text of the novel is relatively inaccessible to the populace, but generations of Chinese revel in the legend through simple storytelling, comics, and animations. In the hands of director Stephen Chow, these well-known literary characters are turned into modern cinematic superheroes enliven by the super powers of computer generated imageries (CGI).
Famous for producing slapstick, comedic work, director Stephen Chow is no stranger to mash-up, far-fetched creations. Combining martial arts with soccer he brought to the screen the popular ‘Shaolin Soccer’ (2001), and in the style of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’, he created the acclaimed ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ (2004). Nine years later, Chow made the best use of cinematic technology and invented his own version of ‘Journey to the West’.
The establishing shot at the beginning evokes the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. That ‘Journey to the West’ is the transporting of Chinese literary characters to the movie screen is a viable parallel with LOTR. But the similarity ends there, for with Chow’s signature style, we do not expect a serious rendering, rather, installed for viewers are wacky characters, cartoonish actions and comedic, even grotesque images.
The 20-minute opening sequence of young demon hunter Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) helping the villagers fight off the water demon (Shing-Cheung Lee), like a parody of Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’, is probably the most riveting act in the whole movie.
After that, Chow develops freely other subplots, such as the unrequited romantic advances of Miss Duan (Qi Shu), a more powerful demon hunter, to win the good heart of Xuan Zang, or the fights with K. L. Hog, the demon pig and master of the intriguing Gao Family Inn which is famous for its roast pork (ah yes, Chow humor). It is fair to say, ‘Journey to the West: Conquering The Demons’ is not an adaptation of the literary classic, but Chow’s own loosely based, and wildly imaginary production with a few characters borrowed from the classical novel.
Chow humor pervades. Some effective, like the innocent Xuan Zang using the 300 Nursery Rhymes to conquer demons, believing everyone by nature is good, for even demons hide an inner child, or the maid of Prince Important (Show Luo) singing ‘Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, Brother John?’ in response, deadpan funny. But there are other scenes that are farcical like the mechanical malfunction of the blood-squirting device on a man’s neck during a fake hold-up master-minded by Duan to attempt intimacy with Xuan Zang.
Music is an interesting draw. Consistent with Chow’s mash-up style, song and dance appear in the most unexpected moments. A song by the popular Hong Kong singer composer Lu Guan Ting recurs as a theme, its lyrics changed to suit the storyline. Throughout, traditional Chinese melodies are mixed with modern numbers. Even Howard Shore’s tune is included, no, not his ‘Journey to the West’, but ‘After Hours’ (Martin Scorsese directs).
The classic novel’s most legendary character is no doubt The Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Punished by Buddha, he has been locked up in a hole at Five Fingers Mountain for five hundred years. The Monkey King (Bo Huang) here evokes the image of Gollum, another LOTR reminiscence. Of course he is no Gollum, but a comedic character that must have practiced some dance moves all these hundreds of years in the hole. He gives Duan a quick lesson and gets her to lure Demon Pig with her dance. Pig finally falls prey into the hole of Monkey King. Another demon captured.
The last to be conquered is Monkey King himself. He may be tiny, but when he fights, he is King Kong. Ultimately Xuan Zang calls forth the help of Buddha, and himself receives superpower. After a spectacular CGI-filled final battle, The Monkey King is subdued.
So a team is formed with three subjugated demons, from sea monster now turned Sandy Monk, Pig, and Monkey King, all under the control of their leader Xuan Zang. As the movie ends, we see the four superheroes begin their journey to the west, India, to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China. The last scene shows the entourage strides into the sunset, ready for adventure. Springboard to a sequel?
That ‘Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons’ is on top of the 2013 China Box Office comes as no surprise. It is China’s own superhero fantasy, featuring characters coming from its own literary figures, with imaginary reinvention of plots, lavishly supported by CGI’s and saturated with Stephen Chow humor, it has defined what is lucrative in the movie industry for the country. The movie’s reception in North America is yet another story.