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Combine rapidly increasing screen numbers, a voracious appetite for movies, a beloved literary legend and perhaps one of Hong Kong’s most popular actor-directors ever and you’ve got the recipe for a minor cinematic phenomenon. A lot would have to be dreadfully wrong for producer-writer-director Stephen Chow’s entertaining comedy-fantasy Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, to flop. And indeed, it has lived up to its potential, earning a massive $190 million in a few weeks in mainland China. Though the film was oddly beaten at home over the key Lunar New Year holiday weekend (by A Good Day to Die Hard of all things) this umpteenth iteration of the Chinese classic is likely to continue its successful streak beyond the Mainland and Hong Kong.
JTTW is Chow’s first film in five years, the last being the fatuous and uncharacteristically schmaltzy CJ7, and it boasts all the hallmarks of a Chow film: the slow development of running jokes and motifs, the wry asides, the everyman background characters that are often hilariously baffled or disbelieving on the viewer’s behalf, the tendency to allow scenes to run on organically. Though the film has more humanity and less of a sharp tongue than Chow has been noted for in the past, it’s undeniably his work (he doesn’t star in the film this time) and audiences and distributors receptive to surprise hits like King of Comedy and the groundbreaking Shaolin Soccer will want to get on the JTTW bandwagon.
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The story kicks off with a stirring opening sequence involving a fake demon hunter, a fake water demon and a Taoist monk (the man that would be Tripitaka) Chen Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) dedicated to demon expulsion via love, kindness and a book of 300 nursery rhymes. Failing to get the job done and strung up for being a hoax, Xuanzang watches helplessly as the real water demon appears and wreaks havoc on a small village. The day is ultimately saved by real-deal Duan (Shu Qi) and her Infinity Flying Ring. Despondent at his failure, Xuanzang goes back to his master (Cheng Sihan) who tells him his lack of faith was the root of his demon banishing ineptitude. Cue the journey to betterment and wisdom.
Constructed in segments pivoting on encounters with the various demons Xuanzang meets — the opening fish demon, the Gao Family Inn and its Pig Demon proprietor (Chen Bingqiang), the closing Five Finger Mountain segment and a run-in with Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King (Huang Bo) with short bridging bits — Journey to the West is more picaresque than pure narrative. But Chow and his army of writers manage to hold on to their themes and ideas through each set piece. The central conflict in the film grows from Xuanzang’s very Buddhist quest to honor the greater love for all things under the sun — demons included — and Duan’s more earthly quest for physical and romantic love. Her aggressive pursuit of him makes Xuanzang uneasy, and challenges his already fragile hold on his faith. The film has a dark undercurrent, entertaining and colorful as it is. Chow has no time for unwritten rules that say toddlers can’t die on screen; the Pig Demon’s lair is truly grotesque; and the Monkey King isn’t the impish charmer that has dominated popular culture. Laughs bump up against loss time and again, giving JTTW a more adult edge than may be expected.
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But Chow has a stellar cast that can soften the more gruesome elements without losing control of their purpose. Shu (Three Times) and Huang (Crazy Stone) are the standouts this time around, and help the bland Wen (The Guillotines) look stronger than he is. Huang is a proven comic performer but Shu surprises yet again with a nuanced turn that deftly balances the film’s emotional weight with its comic demands. The film’s 3D and CGI is adequate, and though it goes needlessly overboard in the closing segments, for the most part it avoids the effects-as-message trap. Journey to the West may not rank among Chow’s classics, but it’s a crowd-pleaser that also serves as a reminder of what the director can accomplish when he’s on his game.
Producers: Stephen Chow, Wang Zhonglei
Director: Stephen Chow
Cast: Wen Zhang, Shu Qi, Huang Bo, Show Luo, Cheng Sihan
Screenwriters: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok, Lola Huo, Wang Yun, Andew Fung, Lu Zhengyu, Ivy Kong, Lee Sheung-ching
Executive producers: Wang Zhongjun, Dong Ping, Han Sanping, Ellen Eliasoph, Bill Kong
Director of Photography: Johnny Choi
Production Designer: Bruce Yu
Music: Raymond Wong
Costume Designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Editor: Andy Chan
No rating, 109 minutes
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