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 Viral Factor by Dante Lam

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

I had plans to see this in January when it came out in Hong Kong. Due to being busy with my work, I did not get around to it till now. So hence this late review.

The direction of Chinese cinema is uncertain right now. Many Hong Kong directors and talent have been making movies in the mainland and there is a conundrum of how to balance the content of these co-productions. It has gotten quite experimental in trying to find a genre that can meet both Mainland and Hong Kong expectations. Comedy and romantic comedy so far rather difficult to cater to audiences as humor is vastly different between Hong Kong and Mainland China Mainland romantic comedies like If You Are The One or Love is Not Blind proves successful in Mainland but not Hong Kong. Making a comedy that balances both tastes such as Derek Yee’s The Great Magician have been attempted as well and failed. So far, only action movie and historical or wuxia epics have proven successful. So now about The Viral Factor

Okay, a plot summary… On a mission to protect a scientist who has stolen a copy of the smallpox virus in Jordan on an International Defence Commission escort mission, Sean (played by Andy On) betrays his IDC team in order to get the virus so he can mutate it into a biological weapon, develop a vaccine and sell it to a corrupt pharmaceutical company via an arms dealer. The failed mission leaves IDC member Jon Man (played by Jay Chou) injured with a headshot wound and his girlfriend Ice (played by Bai Bing) dead. With two weeks left to live, Jon Man decides to spend his remaining days with his mother (played by Elaine Jin) who reveals that he has a long lost brother, Man Yeung (played by Nicholas Tse) whom she left behind with his father, Man Tin (played by Liu Kai Chi). Jon decides to track Yeung down in Malaysia but upon arrival, he discovers that Yeung has become a wanted felon and is part of the plot orchestrated by Sean. Jon is drawn into the conflict, not only to protect his family but to ensure his brother does not go further down the road of unrighteousness and to take down Sean’s operation for good.

The story at times seem a little too coincidental and convenient for the sake of story (The bad guy Sean, who betrayed Jon Man, happens to employ Man Yeung, who is Jon Man’s long lost criminal brother?). It does work though because the plot moves quickly enough where you do not notice these flaws. This is the first time I saw Jay Chou in a more serious light. He has dropped a lot of his “pop star-isms” as Jon Man and brings something more human to his role of which the audience can root for. I’m pretty sure it’s not just the acting beard he is sporting. Ask me again later and I may give you another answer. That or it’s the fact that I cannot grow an acting beard. I do not know what to say about Nicholas Tse because it seems like he’s played this character before. Suffice to say, Tse delivers. It’s always great to see Liu Kai Chi employed. He looks ridiculous but adds a lot of the dramatic tension between the Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse characters.

With it’s foreign locales and big action set pieces,  The Viral Factor is almost reminiscent of Hong Kong productions in the mid-90s like Downtown Torpedoes (starring Jordan Chan and Takeshi Kaneshiro) or Enter The Eagles (starring Shannon Lee and the bilingual atrocity Michael Wong). What makes the movie vastly different from those previous movies is with an investment of $200 million Hong Kong dollars, The Viral Factor has Hollywood-level production values. And yes, the money is all on the screen: there are foot chases, car chases, a helicopter sequence in the sky and boat sequences in the ocean. They do not chicken out with lame shaky camera and there is no struggle to track what’s going on. They use tracking crane shots to cover the action appropriately. The opening action sequence in Jordan felt like a Hollywood war movie. I was both impressed and pondering how the film’s action was going to top itself with such a big opening battle. And boy, they do manage to top it.

The action set pieces do go on a bit long by the finale. Nicholas Tse’s character Man Yeung has this clumsy chaotic way of fighting and ends up brawling and rolling around with each and every henchmen and it drags the pacing a bit. That is a nitpick. I’m glad there was no pop song from either of the stars playing at any point during the movie which seems more refreshing. That’s the thing, it’s still a very fun action movie.

Dante Lam is a filmmaker that has dabbled in different genres through his career. Some have worked better than others. I liked Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (a film not without it’s flaws but ultimately saved by good performances by Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Beast Cops. He’s found his place with the urban crime genre with films like The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon. Now it seems like he’s found his niche. The Viral Factor felt fresh even though it shouldn’t have. I would like to see more action movies made with this level of budget using international locations. After all, we have seen enough of Hong Kong.

How I Would Have Written the Ending to Peter Chan’s Wu Xia

Wu Xia (film)

Peter Chan's Wu Xia

MASSIVE SPOILERS – DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN PETER CHAN’S WU XIA

I am a diehard loyal Donnie Yen fan. I was a fan before most people, since the Fist of Fury TV series days. It’s unfortunate because he peaked late to the love of mass audiences but the definite Donnie Yen works are all the films before he struck gold with Ip Man. Films such as Legend of the WolfSPL and Flashpoint will remain among my all-time personal favorite martial arts films. Flashpoint is the ultimate achievement in fight choreography. Yen always maintained his own style of choreography, stressing that it should be realistic and grounded in martial arts techniques. The speed and force of hits in Yen choreography are always the highlight of his fight scenes.

Speaking of which, I’m also a Takeshi Kaneshiro fan. He is a very smart actor that nobody ever gives him credit for because presumably he’s too good looking. He’s versatile (he can play drama, sing, and do comedy) and always brings up interesting characterizations to the table. In the beginning stages of shooting Wu Xia, he opted to perform his character in a Sichuan accent, which totally constructed a new layer to his detective character. With the snotty reaction of non-Mandarin actors speaking mandarin in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which inadvertently lead to Cantonese actors being dubbed in the Mandarin releases)  has no Chinese actor since attempted an accent. The stresses, tones and built-in emotionality of a Sichuan accent made his character more comical and quirky and in my opinion helped us see the intense quirks of his character. This film must be watched in its mandarin version to fully enjoy Kaneshiro’s performance.

So you can understand the excitement I had for Wu Xia when it was said that these two actors were casted together in the same movie.

I rather enjoyed the film. It brought some new colors to the wuxia genre. It contains the best Donnie Yen acting performance. Jimmy Wang is genuinely scary as the villain. I think Takeshi Kaneshiro is snubbed at the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards. As much as I enjoyed the film, the filmmaker in me, thinks the third act could have been much better polished to be something great.

So let’s begin with a PLOT SYNOPSIS (feel free to skip if you remember the story):

The film is set in 1917 in a post-Qing Dynasty era, at Liu Village on the border of Yunnan, China. Liu Jin Xi (played by Donnie Yen) lives with his wife Yu (played by Tang Wei) and two children, works as a paper maker in Liu Village. One day, two bandits rob a general store. Liu Jin Xi, who happens to be in the store, gets into a brawl in an attempt to protect the storeowner. He kills the bandits and is branded a hero in his village.

Detective Xu Baijiu (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to investigate the case and discovers that one of the dead bandits was Yan Dongsheng, who is among the government’s ten most wanted fugitives. How can a simple commoner manage to take down the two most wanted fugitives? Through an accessment of the crime scene and an autopsy, all of the clues conclude that Liu Jin Xi is an expert martial artist. He’s able to induce brain hemorrhaging by hitting their Vague nerve and alter his weight with his Qi (a scientific explanation for ‘flying skills’ in the wu xia genre). Through many trials of investigation, Xu Baijiu finds out that Liu Jin Xi is really Tang Long – the second-in-command of the 72 Demons, a group of vicious and bloodthirsty warriors of Tangut minority descent trying to avenge the destruction of their people, who brutally murdered a butcher’s family (of Han descent) in Jingzhou ten years ago. Liu Jin Xi walks Xu out to the forest and instead of killing him, Liu spares him. Liu hopes Xu will let him go. Xu immediately returns to the county office to obtain an arrest warrant for Tang Long.

The magistrate delays issuing the warrant, citing lack of evidence while actually demanding a bribe from Xu. Xu eventually obtains the bribe money from his estranged wife (played by Li Xiaoran), who blames him for causing her father’s suicide. After issuing the warrant, the magistrate informs the Master of the 72 Demons (played by Jimmy Wang, the original One-Armed Swordsman) on Tang Long’s whereabouts, hoping to receive a reward. The Master is offended and reveals that Tang is actually his son, and he kills the magistrate by severing his Vagus nerve.

The Master sends his Demon henchmen to Liu Village to capture Tang and burn down the place. While Xu and the constables are on their way there, the two Demon henchmen reach the village first and kill a villager to force Tang to acknowledge his identity. Tang can no longer control himself and he fights and kills the two assailants, one of whom is the Master’s wife (played by Kara Hui), also Tang Long’s mother.

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, he induces a fake death with Tang Long’s body so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Xu knows that Tang cannot remain in his “death” state for any longer so he revives Tang. Tang severs his left arm in front of the Demons, announcing that he has formally broken ties with them by giving them his murderous hand. The Demons tell him to approach The Master, who is waiting for him at his home.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and  weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master is angered and incapacitates Xu. Tang continues fighting but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang, Xu notices the needle still stuck in his heel and takes him by surprise, planting another needle in the Master’s neck. The Master is unfazed and mortally wounds Xu by slamming him hard to the ground. The top needle acts as a lightning rod, and in combination with the bottom needle acting as an earthing wire, the Master is charred by a lightning strike, killing him. Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed.

The ending scene of the film shows a now one-armed Tang Long heading off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work.

Okay, onto MY SCREENWRITING IDEAS ABOUT WU XIA

Last chance not to spoil it for yourself! 

MY CRITIQUE OF THE ORIGINAL ENDING

My problem with the movie starts in the third act. It all begins with Liu Jin Xi chopping his own arm in front of the Demon lackeys.

Many will argue the Liu Jin Xi’s arm chopping to be a convention of the wu xia genre (though I don’t know where that has occured), it seems to come out-of-left field and out-of-character. The fact that it’s convention doesn’t bother me. Frankly, you can cut both his arms off (Donnie Yen is a kicker anyways), but it’s not justified by the character. The Tang Long character wakes up from his faked death amongst the 72 Demons, his father The Master, isn’t there. He is among lackeys! Why would he chop off his arm in front of them to trade for his freedom? They ultimately do not have the power to decide whether Tang Long can be let go or not. He chops his arm off and then the lackeys tell him he should see The Master as he is the decider. Wouldn’t you feel stupid in that moment if that happened to you?

The film’s major problem in the third act is that it ends with a deux ex machina. Yes, a lighting bolt is what kills the villain. The villain is set up to be so powerful that he is simply unbeatable by either protagonists, neither brains or brawn. An act of god comes in and kills off the Jimmy Wang character. And that’s where they got it wrong! It should be brains and brawn working together that beats The Master at the end.

And even if they beat The Master of the 72 Demons, the story hasn’t ended yet. Tang hasn’t even taken out the lackeys (the ones that cried over his fake death). They’re still alive and presumably around!

MY VERSION OF THE ENDING

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, they fake Tang Long’s death so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Time runs out and Xu revives Tang before he dies from being in his “death” state too long. Tang fights the Demon lackeys with both hands, finally finishing off the leader, who tells him The Master (Jimmy Wang) is at his house waiting for him. Tang takes the lackey’s broadsword and heads home with Xu.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. The Master breaks off Tang Long’s left arm and gives him a speech about being a traitor to his clan, that he should haven’t joined the Han people and that he should have avenged the death of his people.

While this is going on, Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master pulls Xu from underneath the boards and incapacitates him.

Tang takes the blade, continues fighting with one-arm but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang with one final blow, Xu plants several needles in the Master’s neck. The Master’s qigong defenses are totally taken down. Tang chops off his head with his blade.

Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed. We see Xu die as Yu and the kids come to Tang’s aid. We fade to black.

Some time later, a now one-armed Tang Long heads off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work. We see the Liu Village being rebuilt.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So those are my thoughts! That just makes more sense to me. Tell me what you think!

And not that this would matter, but Harvey Weinstein, please don’t call this movie Dragon for the U.S. distribution. That’s a horrid title.