If you’ve been browsing the Xbox Video store, you might have noticed a new addition under the Featured section. It stands out quite prominently as the only Asian foreign film among the more recent Western releases, but more so as Stephen Chow’s latest attempt at a feature length piece. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (also the basis for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, one of my favorite games), but with Chow’s signature flair.
For those of you that don’t recognize the name, Chow is the man behind 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Golden Globe-nominated Kung Fu Hustle. And if you don’t recognize those two movies, then you really need to reprioritize your movie-watching. They’re both outlandish action comedies, the former about a Shaolin kung fu master playing soccer and the latter about two-bit thug being an unknown kung fu genius. Both are quite well known for being of a cartoonish nature.
Unsurprisingly, that is also one of the most striking features of Journey to the West. It doesn’t go quite as far as Kung Fu Hustle what with the knife-throwing and the Road Runner-esque chase sequences, but it certainly retains so much of what makes Chow’s films so easily identifiable. Especially held against the aesthetics of ancient, rustic Chinese villages, the sensibilities of modern action choreography and comedic cadences contrast quite nicely.
But even beyond that for Chow is his seemingly undeniable sense of heart. Everyone in this film takes up the part of some personable caricature—a dangerously skilled demon hunter with a propensity for schoolgirl crushes, a master swordsman who makes play he’s a prince (with less-than-ideal results), and so on—but they are so endearing for both their faults and their strengths.
For example, if you take our lead character Tang Sanzang (played by Wen Zhang), he’s a bumbling, oafish doofus of a demon hunter. He’s knowledgeable, but in the first instance we see of him doing his job, he attempts to sing a river demon to becoming nice. Not the worst plan considering how many fairy tales go, but given the very obvious lack of effect on the demon and the subsequent beating Sanzang receives, he should have gone a different route.
Then we see where this character truly is coming from once he returns to his master. He’s unsure of this tactic as well, but convinced and encouraged by his master to continue on. He must believe that there is good in these demons and that they are redeemable, even when he doesn’t believe in his own abilities. And then we see him soldier on into a den of demon shenanigans, still unwilling to compromise on his ideals.
Most affecting, though, is the relationship between Sanzang and rival demon hunter/love interest Miss Duan (played by Shu Qi). She is a talented hunter with a number of magical armaments that make her infinitely more effective than Sanzang. She’s serious and takes no guff when there’s a battle to be fought.
But she’s also weak to the idea of love, or at least weak to the idea of being loved. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Sanzang to admit what she believes he feels, which she has roughly zero evidence to substantiate. But one elaborate plan after another lands her more and more in the grasp of some belief that their love is mutual.
While the specifics of these characters’ circumstances are rather unique and wholly improbable in modern times, the sentiment behind their actions is timeless. Chow not only has an ability to infuse humor in the strangest ways into the best possible situations, but he also manages to consistently distill the essence of human trials into outlandish yet relatable characters.
The only disappointing aspect of Journey to the West is that once again he seems to fall under the spell of deus ex machina. By some innate ability activated through a higher power, the final crisis is averted. It makes for an emotionally compelling climax to the film once again (see Kung Fu Hustle for reference), but upon reflection or with sufficient context of his other films, it comes across as a bit tired.
I’d like to see Chow try a more subdued, less divine intervention conclusion. He can do subtle, and he can do it well, even if he is known for going over the top and being ridiculous in every way imaginable. But Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons riles up a desire within me to see him tip the scales the other way, moving towards quiet and tempered over bombastic and spectacle. Still, though, it’s quite a good movie, and if you’re looking for a laugh and a warming smile to be left across your face, then give it a shot.