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.