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.

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai


NOTE: I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to approach this as both a film review and a guide on how to enjoy this film. And by that, I mean the original cut of the film. Not the Weinstein version.

The Grandmaster chronicles the life story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master. Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by northern stylist Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qingxiang), is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi). The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will live to pass on their lineage?

Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him to explore every little detail in his stories. Watching a Wong Kar Wai film is the cinematic equivalent of taking a warm bath loaded with multi-colored bath salts in a room full of lush oil paintings. Everything is a visualized metaphor. Feelings matter more than character, and you’re invited to indulge and feel your way through what’s happening. And boy, nobody can visualize a metaphor like Wong Kar Wai.

Phillipe Desourde’s photography and William Cheung Suk Ping’s art direction is top notch. People often attribute the credit to the cinematographer and overlook the fact that something has to be made beautiful in the first place to look beautiful on screen. The Golden Brothel and the train station sets are works of art.

Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights more convincingly than the quick editing suggests. The subtle interplay between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi that teeters between a could-be romance and a genuine soul mate was played well too.

Speaking of which, this may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictional character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. More on that later…

The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial art. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bode better for onscreen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a Game of Death-like sequence where the film presents these different styles. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of Ip Man films (this is the fourth and there is a fifth coming soon starring Anthony Wong as an older Ip Man) really has limited the creativity in presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now.

It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, when people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and watching how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple meanings underneath as martial artists spoke in that time period. There were some instances when I had an itch to rewrite some of the subtitles because they would translate the entire idiom literally to keep the subtext of the Chinese dialogue. That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences.

A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be focused on Ip Man or all three masters. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and this unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative.

If you’ll indulge me, here are some facts about Ip Man’s life that will help you with the film:

  •     Ip Man was born rich, collected rent from owning property and never worked a day in his life until later when the Japanese invaded and took his home in Fushan.
  •    He was offered a job to train the Japanese army and turned it down.
  •    He later escaped to Hong Kong because he was a member of the Guomingdang. His wife stayed in Fushan and it remained that way for the rest of their lives.

There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which ended up being quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. This eventually lead Bruce Lee creating Jeet Kune Do, spreading Chinese martial arts across the world. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this.

To be frank, all of the big budget revisionist history films and wuxia films in current Chinese cinema bore me. The big budget action films are getting louder and more repetitive. As for the historical epics, I value the importance of reminding the next generation of the past but it ultimately culminates an overwhelming sense of gloom across the nation and it affects how China is perceived internationally because of its hate-mongering nature. It’s emotionally tiring as a moviegoer annually sitting through films in which Chinese people suffer as filmmakers and producers check off every historical tragedy we’ve been through in the last century.

Wong Kar Wai manages to present an age-old Chinese value without a blatant sense of nationalism or bitter finger pointing. It made me proud as a Chinese. This is a higher level of artistic achievement than simply revising history. After all, as filmmakers and artists, what are we leaving behind to the next generation? Are we making films to remind people of the past so we can carry the anger? Is that the extent of our cultural capital? Or can we bring them to another place with emotional breadth and positivity?

That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It was made with a lot of heart with its microscopic attention to detail and delivers a sincere message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!

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Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan

Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan

Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan

A team of thieves lead by JC (played by Jackie Chan) searches the world for a set of mystic artifacts – 12 bronze heads of the animals from the Chinese zodiac.

This is a tricky movie to critique. First of all, Jackie Chan has stated that this is his last time performing his own stunts in a movie. So do I measure CZ12 as a standalone film  or do I position it as a final act in the long line of Jackie Chan’s filmography over the last 30 years?

Secondly, what can I expect from Jackie Chan? As a final bow, what can he do to surprise me? He is long past his physical peak (in my opinion, his top physical peak was Police Story 2). After 20 years of growing up on his films, The “Jackie Chan Action Scene Formula” is forever embedded into my brain; I almost always know how his fight scenes end. In case you do not know what I’m talking about, here it is:

  1. There’s a situation where Jackie Chan is being beaten by a group of people.
  2. The fight leads to an environment/a prop.
  3.  Jackie Chan using the environment/prop, creatively defeats the entire group of people.
  4.  There’s a joke at the end that comes from the environment/prop. End scene.

So, did Chinese Zodiac 12 surprise me? I would say 40% yes, 60% no.

I watched a recent interview that Jackie Chan gave to a mainland show where he said that he did not like casting TV actors in his movies because they take way too much time to get through a scene of dialogue. It seems he went the other extreme, because the dramatic scenes are played out and edited way too quickly. It’s like every dramatic scene was played out on fast-forward and often there is not a lot of time to digest what’s going on. Even comedic moments are neutered from the lack of time to digest them. I found this to be problematic.

Narrative wise, the story takes shortcuts. Characters act out of character at times for story convenience. And seriously, can anyone really buy Jackie Chan being a heartless money-grubbing thief? I’d have an easier time buying Tom Hanks playing a bad guy than Jackie Chan.

So about the set pieces. For what he can’t bring physically, Chan makes it up with scale and locales. The action set pieces are fun, some stand out more than others. My favorite was the bodyblading sequence at the beginning. That was a very tense sequence watching Jackie Chan go head first speeding down a highway. The story and action scenes in CZ12 ask the audience to recall Jackie Chan’s past filmography, notably the two Armour of God movies (You can call this Armour of God 3, if you like). It even drew a few gags from it and there was one set that recalled the drug factory from Dragons Forever. This makes it impossible for me to critique it as a standalone film.

Part of the film’s story is a piece of issue-tainment addressing the issue of museums withholding historical artifacts from their home countries. It’s an issue that Jackie Chan seems to care a lot about and he presents it as an international issue. Although the film treats this issue rather lightly and it does ultimately get buried under the trappings of a Jackie Chan movie, it’s nice to see Chan raising an issue like this in a film.

There are many personal touches like that here, it’s very possible that Jackie Chan can just be a director in the future. There was one noteworthy part of the movie where Jackie Chan actually officially apologizes to his real-life wife for the time they’ve missed together all these years. They reportedly see each other once a year. This moved me by the end. It was not from the story of the film or from a well-earned dramatic catharsis, but because it felt like Jackie Chan was saying goodbye to me.

For anybody who’s unfamiliar with Chan, it’s not a great movie by conventional rules nor would it gain him any new fans. For these people, I refer you to his earlier films, check out The Drunken Master and the Police Story films.

For people who grew up on Jackie Chan movies like I did, I don’t think I can ever stomach the idea of Jackie Chan saying goodbye. My earlier memories of films were of Jackie Chan movies. Watching this movie, I was moved, laughed and exhilirated, all the time thinking maybe this was the last time. If Jackie Chan really chose to retire performing action, CZ12 is a good way to go out.

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?