Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

The story of Xuanzang (also known as Tripitaka, played by Wen Zhang) and his beginnings as a demon hunter and develops a romance with a female demon hunter (played by Shu Qi).

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons marks the very first Stephen Chow directed movie without him acting in it. So, what can I properly expect from this movie? The idea of a Stephen Chow movie is always exciting. However, I was concerned that it might be the start of an new era in which Stephen Chow will only direct movies and not act in them anymore. For that, I was both excited and scared to see this film. But finally, I decided there probably wasn’t anything to expect and just walked in without expectations.

Fortunately, that ended up being the best way to seeing this movie. I ended up being really surprised and taken away by it.

It’s clear that Stephen Chow’s passions are now set into directing. He has improved a lot as a director; his films have become more cinematic experiences. There’s less reliance on comedic dialogue, more emphasis on telling a story with stronger imagery, and has an improved sense of setup and payoff. He’s much more interested in storytelling mechanics and more invested in where he can take an audience emotionally besides just laughs. With the way he structures some of his story, there’s a symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy that he’s very interested in exploring.

Wen Zhang delivers that exact balance between tragedy and comedy in his performance as Xuanzang. He is a charismatic leading man and he shoulders the film with both its funny and heartbreaking moments. When he was playing for humor, I laughed. When he was crying, I found it moving. I am buying him at every moment and he was playing me like a squeeze toy. The story gives a genuine pathos as he becomes the Xuanzang we know from the story.

Shu Qi is very affable in this role and it’s nice to see her play a character with more cartoonish sensibilities. I especially liked her psychotic expressions when she was killing off demons. And yes, I can see how hard it is to reject Shu Qi if she threw herself at you like she did in this movie.

Huang Bo is a fun Monkey King and makes a very engaging antagonist. This version of Monkey King is richly complex. It’s an interesting take on the character because it highlights a key point about Sun Wukong that’s often glossed over: He never had a choice to join Xuanzang on his journey to the west. The Monkey King goes only because he is tamed by the magical torture crown that’s he is forced to wear on his head. In this interpretation, he’s not completely good or evil. Huang Bo does not play it too over-the-top by enhancing the animalistic sensibilities. Instead, what really stuck with me was how he convincingly played the desperate pain of being trapped under a mountain for five centuries.

The film’s gags are executed with much discipline. The gags are zany but not random. They are all building character and moving the story forward each step of the way to it’s final conclusion. It’s masterful how Chow is able to use comedic moments to build towards moments of sadness and loss.

The film rehashes the theme song “Love of a Lifetime” by Lowell Lo in A Chinese Odyssey. The updated version is sung by Shu Qi. Not to hark on Shu Qi’s singing, but her cover of the song only echoes the power of Lowell Lo’s original version. It’s an eerie song that carries a tremendous sense of loss and feeling of love unreturned. If I had to describe it for non-Chinese speakers, it sounds like a lost soul calling out searching for his lover across a timeless netherworld. It fit very well with the theme of loving someone for 10,000 years in A Chinese Odyssey. Shu Qi’s version works for the goals of this film, but all it does is it plays the original version in my head.

Take a listen (Spoiler free to those who haven’t seen A Chinese Odyssey):

The good news is that’s about as much as Stephen Chow draws from A Chinese Odyssey. It would help to know the basic premise of Journey to the West but there’s absolutely no need to see A Chinese Odyssey to understand this film.

The cult popularity of A Chinese Odyssey in Mainland China, while rightfully earned, is appreciated out of it’s own context. Two key things that Mainland audiences love about A Chinese Odyssey is wrongfully credited to Stephen Chow. Firstly, the famous “10,000 years” monologue delivered by Stephen Chow in the film was originally written by Jeff Lau as a parody of the same line spoken by Takeshi Kaneshiro in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (director Jeff Lau was Wong Kar Wai’s producer at Jet Tone Films). A fact that nobody remembers.

Second, a portion of the Stephen Chow’s funny dialogue in A Chinese Odyssey was modified for Mandarin and voiced by Mainland voice actor Shi Ban Yu. For example, the line “你真係無得頂呀你!” in Cantonese became the frequently quoted “哇靠!I服了You” in Mandarin. In the scene Stephen Chow’s character’s hometown is under a demon attack, and he’s betrayed by his own group of bandits. They play dead and escape, leaving Stephen Chow to be eaten by a spider demon. In Cantonese, the feeling of the line translates to “that was damn genius of you!”, the irony being that he admires their savvy, despite of being left to die by his own mates. In Mandarin, while the line is accurately translated in meaning, it becomes a gag about mixing English and Chinese together in the same sentence. You’re laughing only partly that Stephen Chow is being betrayed but more so surprised the fact that he has knowledge of the English language, something that you did not expect. The beloved classic witty lines that Mainlanders love from A Chinese Odyssey, while technically a translation, is a creative credit Stephen Chow didn’t earn.

These two things have been put to an end for Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The film is shot completely in Mandarin with a Mandarin speaking cast and the “10,000 years” monologue is not directly referenced. It would have been easy for Chow to milk the nostalgia and heavily reference A Chinese Odyssey to no end. But Chow cuts no corners. This is the work of someone who really loves the source material and has managed to find something personal in it enough for legitimate reinterpretation. It’s a sincere effort by a filmmaker who wants to earn the love of his audience through playing by the rules by telling a real story. He does it tightly, refreshes an age-old tale that everybody knows (there were parts that I didn’t see coming that I should have) and wraps it up in 100 minutes.

The thought of no more Stephen Chow roles anymore aches me a bit but his presence is felt here. He has delivered a well-made film. Fortunately the film is done well  enough to help me get over my aching and  accept him now as only a film director.  I look forward to seeing him continually improve as a storyteller and I look forward to the next installment in this series.

Stephen Chow fans, the coast is clear! For anybody else, check it out! It’s a good solid movie to start off the new year.

Dredd by Pete Travis

Dredd by Pete Travis

In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) teams with new trainee Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Dredd is correlated to The Raid: Redemption because they have similar setups (my short review of The Raid: Redemption here). Fortunately, I saw The Raid: Redemption earlier in the summer of 2012 and missed Dredd in theaters, as a result I have enough time in between the two films to mentally separate them. Being unfamiliar with the source material, what I actually ended up comparing Dredd was the 1996 Slyvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. It’s a sci-fi movie that I grew up on and entertained me (however Demolition Man is the superior sci-fi Slvyester Stallone movie). It’s famously criticized because Sylvester Stallone, at the behest of the producers, plays the latter two-thirds of the film with his helmet off. Judge Dredd in the comics, never takes off his helmet. I never knew what the big deal was with the insistance that the Judge Dredd character must keep his helmet on… till I saw Dredd.

Judge Dredd is not a character as more a representation of pure black-and-white law taken to the extreme. That’s why he’s meant to be faceless. Taking off his mask and trying to find the human backstory behind that character completely shatters what he thematically represents. Yes, I know I sound stupid right now. However, a movie with Judge Dredd alone just shooting criminals would have been boring. The filmmakers understand this, so they have placed in a buddy cop dynamic into the film with the Judge Anderson character. She is more human and more dimensional as a character, and set as a juxtaposition to the stoic Dredd. It can even be argued that the movie is Judge Anderson’s story. Both characters had a good working chemistry and the film deeply benefits from their buddy dynamic as it provides something human enough for me to hang onto between the action scenes.

As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban manages to communicate a lot under a helmet and has a firm grasp of the material. Playing a character who is that extreme can easily fall into parody very quickly (there are many Youtube videos parodying Stallone’s delivery “I’m the lawwwwww!!!!!”) and Urban doesn’t fall into that. Lena Headey manages to be cold and scary without being cartoonish as the film’s villain Ma-Ma. The film is over-the-top but there’s no ‘wink wink’, everybody just “is” the character they’re playing.

Slow motion in films have been overdone and viewers have grown used to it now. The way to keep slow motion fresh is to incorporate it into the story. Having a drug that slows down your perception of time is arguably the most blatant way to do this. But you know what? It works! It seems fresh and they take the Slo-Mo drug as a story device and take it to creative places. The films has fun action set pieces. The next set piece tops the last and it moves fast enough for you to ever really ponder about the satirical tones.

Dredd  is fun and made by a team that understands and loves the material. Their goals with this movie were simple but they accomplish them. It makes me think, as proven by the 1995 film, that perhaps the Judge Dredd property is not meant to be adapted into a vehicle for a big name star. The dark humor combined with ultra-violent tone of it just registers as something kitschier that will fare better for a smaller audience. No one’s going to take their whole family to see this movie but more likely a group of guys will cackle over it with a case of beers in their apartment.

For the people that want to see Dredd, will get it and enjoy it. For the people who don’t care that much may just dismiss it as being a lesser version of The Raid: Redemption. I’m not going to get on that bandwagon, Dredd deserves better than simply writing it off like that.

Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson

A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

The film has a strong ensemble cast. The two leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward carry the film just fine. I believed their romance, connected with their loneliness and rooted for them. It’s been a while since Bruce Willis played a character. In America they call it character acting; the rest of the world just calls it acting. Don’t ask me why. But it was refreshing to see Willis play someone who functions at a lower volume compared to his larger-than-life tough guy action roles. It was also nice to see Edward Norton doing comedy and playing a klutzier character as well.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Moonrise Kingdom was its storybook aesthetic, which acts as the engine pumping a vibrant energy through the story. To list a few examples, the story is set in an enclosed world. A narrator delivers story information straight to the camera in a vocal tone that sounds like he’s instructing a child on how to use a toaster. The cinematography, with its camera movements, deliberately flattens the framing, subtly embodying the two-dimensional quality of a children’s storybook panel.

I liked the world that was created in the film. It was believable and at the same time contained a fairy-tale-like quality and a sense of wonder. As the two lead characters were trying to escape their home like a cartoon character trying to run out of the edges of a page, I could not have imagined what the outside world would have looked like. The world was just that well established. For example, product placement would have completely shattered the illusion of the world. Not that I was specifically looking for it, but I’m glad I do not recall any in the film.

There is a real sense of a community that’s attached to this place and I like that even the smaller characters all contribute to the action of the story rather than acting as mere background decoration. And for that, the characters earn their quirks.

The only other Wes Anderson work I have seen was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. So I maybe unqualified to say this, but Moonrise Kingdom is probably the most accessible Wes Anderson film. The film is rated PG-13, but I do believe that the film will play well to children (from 9-10 onwards, it does have a few dark moments), particularly as a way to reach children who have been orphaned or have experienced a broken family. It feels as though Wes Anderson made this movie for them.

I was entranced, laughed and it put me in a fuzzy warm mood by the end. Moonrise Kingdom proves how simple stories can still be powerful and it does not take complex story structures to engage and move an audience. 

Next Round of Reviews! Upcoming thoughts about Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

My next round of reviews:

Who takes 7 months to review a Batman movie? I do! It’s been a long struggle reviewing The Dark Knight Rises and Rust and Bone, realizing that the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate why it was personal to you. It was a repetitive cycle of opening up the post and geting lost in my own scrambled feelings that needed to be unknotted and structured for a reader. I encountered a similar problem with The Grandmaster review but thank goodness that only took me a week. My goal is to finish these two reviews by Chinese New Year.

Three titles that will likely be reviewed faster than the above two films.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

As of right now, I haven’t seen the new Stephen Chow film yet. Even though my interest in the film is halved by the fact that Stephen Chow is not acting in it. It’s been pretty funny seeing the trailers playing in Hong Kong theaters, as it shows a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Stephen Chow directing his actors. Which begs me to question, if they are flat out marketing the movie with footage of Stephen Chow acting out the scenes for his actors, what’s the point in seeing a Stephen Chow movie without Stephen Chow in it? I intend on finding the answer.

I have never been someone that feels my childhood is at stake when something I like is being rewritten upon, but it feels like that this time. Stephen Chow has given me some all-time highs throughout my childhood. It feels brutal. On one hand, its always fascinating to see how an artist evolves, for better or for worse. Maybe I have to accept its the end of an era. That there won’t be a Stephen Chow film with him acting in it ever again and I’m going to have to come to terms with that. Heck, I took it hard when I realized he probably wasn’t going to work with Ng Man Tat anymore.

So I’m both looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

Read my review here.

Cloud Atlas by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Cloud Atlas by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Lets start with the good things, Ben Whishaw gives a great performance as the aspiring musician. Man he can really rock a voice-over. There’s something very convincing about Hugh Grant playing sleazy disgusting characters. This sounds like a backhanded compliment but I don’t mean it that way. He’s much more believable being slimy than in his romantic comedy roles. I liked the central musical score that the film is named after. That’s about all I can say.

Cloud Atlas asks the audience to do an incredible amount of math to keep up with its stories. In my opinion, the movie doesn’t use much style or story devices to help the audience follow the story. Sometimes they downright made it difficult to follow, personally I found the language in the future timeline hard to tune to. I tried very hard for the first two hours trying to figure out how the six story lines connected to each other. I don’t know if it’s something you have to know from the book but I sincerely hope that is not the case. If reading the book is necessary to understand the film, then does that not mean the film failed entirely as a standalone piece?

The make-up concept was problematic. Why deliberately make an actor who is Asian look Caucasian? Or a Caucasian actor into an Asian?  Racist stereotyping aside (there are Asians who have double eyelids), it kept taking me out of the movie because I am suddenly aware that the cartoonish-looking character would not genetically exist. Seriously, look out for Hugo Weaving dressed as Nurse Hatchett from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in one of the storylines. That said, I still gave it a chance and searched hard for the internal logic of the film. I reflected upon viewing, why is one actor playing six roles in six different storylines? Is the fact that I can recognize the actor’s face in a different character meant to be a narrative device? Is it suggesting a thematic connection between the multiple roles that actor is playing? Or is it trying to evoke juxtaposition between them? I failed to see it.

The Wachowski’s have gone on record saying that critics are going to dismiss the film as incomprehensible schlock from the frustration of not being able to piece it together. They’d prefer if the audience will just find their own interpretations. I know what they mean, though that doesn’t magically make the movie critic-proof.

I probably need to have a dialogue with people who did enjoy Cloud Atlas, because I simply did not connect with the material. As a standalone piece, it did not hold together cohesively. Mainly because I have seen this type of material done much better, I recommend anybody to see watch Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (my thoughts here). An underrated film that shares Cloud Atlas‘s ambition. It masterfully used every cinematic technique in the book to visually guide the audience easily through it’s attention-shifting tree branch narrative structure. I was able to track the entire story through the twelve different versions of the protagonist as the story developed simultaneously. As for the six story lines in Cloud Atlas, not the case!

Who? What? Where? When? Why? Zilch. It’s not a bitter angry ‘zilch’, but I worked very hard following a story that did not payoff.

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Seven Psychopaths takes its central gag from Adaptation in that it’s about an author struggling trying to write the ideal original story, trying to avoid cliches and climatic gunfights but then at the end the author picks up a gun and shoots his way out of his problems, ironically juxtaposing the exact situations he’s trying to creatively avoid. It simultaneously addresses and pokes fun at the author’s eternal struggle to balance his own personal voice and the necessary components of what makes a story entertaining. So, does Seven Psychopaths bring insight to the craft of storytelling? Not exactly. Is it funny? Yes.

Colin Farrell plays a good straight man and Woody Harrelson makes a hilarious villain. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken both balance the movie’s post-modern aesthetic by adding humanity to the story. With all the post-modern cutaways, witty dialogue and crazy titles stopping the film to identify each psychopath, the movie titters on being self-indulgent but it does not because we believe their characters and care about them. The tone is balanced very well as a result and we are able to both laugh and take things seriously at the same time. Sam Rockwell steals the movie. The humanity he’s able to insert into his character is impressive. Even in his craziness, we understand how his mind works and believe that he is genuinely trying to help his friend. In the hands of a lesser actor, the movie would have collapsed.

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s second feature and it shows. It’s a film where the director is enjoying a bigger cast, bigger budget and more free reign. I don’t have a problem with that. However,  In Bruges is still the superior film. It was a deeper film about guilt and redemption and even had a metaphysical layer that explored the idea of purgatory. I still read it occasionally as a screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is a good piece of fluff and flirts with the suggestion of deeper ideas ironically to get laughs. It’s really good fluff, but fluff nonetheless.