'Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back' ('Xi You Fu Yao Pian'): Film Review

Journey to the West 2 -Still 1-H 2017
Courtesy of Edko Films
A ghostbusting blockbuster from China.

Tsui Hark takes the helm of comedian-director Stephen Chow's sequel to his Monkey King escapade from 2013.

In a widely circulated trailer for Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, the film's producer Stephen Chow is shown being chastised and berated by director Tsui Hark for being an infantile good-for-nothing. It's pure theater shaped for comical effect, of course — in reality, it's Chow who recruited Tsui to direct the latest entry in his lucrative Monkey King franchise — but the play-acting is actually a fitting summary of the fruits of their collaboration.

A follow-up to Chow's self-directed 2013 blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, The Demons Strike Back boasts the inventive, scintillating VFX-laden action scenes Tsui has now perfected to a tee with his Detective Dee films and The Taking of Tiger Mountain. But the thrilling imagery is also crucial in distracting audiences from Chow's screenplay, which merely cruises along with its episodic narrative, rehashed gags and simplistic characters.

Like most second films in franchises with an undefined end — think Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers — this latest entry in Chow's Journey series is all spectacle and little substance, a stop-gap title produced perhaps to keep the brand going while the producers search for a way to bring the series forward. A canny crowd-pleaser to the last, Chow clearly knows who spends money in China these days, having replaced Conquering the Demons' deft but older cast (Wen Zhang and Huang Bo) with a stellar array of younger, prettier faces (the Canadian-Chinese pop star Kris Wu, alongside pin-ups like Kenny Lin and Jelly Lin).

The Demons Strike Back is undemanding entertainment which fits the ambience of the Lunar New Year holiday season in China perfectly: There, the film is now well-placed to rewrite box-office records set this time last year by The Mermaid, a populist comedy directed by — who else? — Chow himself. Meanwhile, Demons should strike gold with cinephiles (or sinophiles) worldwide as some kind of spaced-out oddity. Never mind the confusing Chinese wordplay — where else could one find King Kong turning into something like the Hulk, and then watch the resulting creature sparring with massive golden Buddhas?

Just like how filmmakers elsewhere reworked Jane Austen romance novels or Abraham Lincoln biopics as vampire flicks, Tsui and Chow have adapted characters and storylines from the 500-year-old Journey to the West novel into what could be described as a Chinese equivalent of Ghostbusters. Ever more so than Conquering the Demons — which chronicles the beginning of the master-disciple relationship between monk and monkey — The Demons Strike Back conjures outlandish scenes from of the smattering of demonic possessions and derring-do exorcisms in its original literary source.

The film begins with the monk, Tang Sanzang (Wu), penniless and resorted to parading his paranormal disciples — the mischievous primate Sun Wukong (Lin Gengxin), Pigsy (Yang Yiwei) and Sandy (the former NBA player Menteke Bateer) — as some kind of a freak show. Soon enough, the quartet's fortunes pick up when they are called on to battle deadly devils in various guises, all of them a drastic reinterpretation of some monster in the Ming Dynasty novel: a spider with the body of a siren, an evil cherub holding a kingdom to ransom, and a female ghost rising to life to avenge her grisly death.

Throughout all this, The Demon Strikes Back soldiers loudly along, alternating between high-octane, digitally enhanced skirmishes and the equally cacophonic bickering between the monk and the monkey. Their never-ending rows and ruffles are monotonous to the extreme, and seem to only serve as an excuse for Tang Sanzang to deliver supposedly witty one-liners and the monkey to descend toward unfettered violence.

It's hard to feel for them, or understand what cements their bromance — their personalities (and the way they are played out by Wu and Lin) are as simplistic and single-tracked as that of the other two disciples here. And that's saying something, given how Pigsy has only one gag going for him — his crazed ogling and pursuit of women — and Sandy spends most of his screentime transformed into a giant fish.

Punctuating all this is the monk's recollections of his past love, Duan (the uncredited Shu Qi, briefly reprising her role in a few short scenes) — the devil-hunter whom the monkey killed in Conquering the Demons. Perhaps hoping to inject some emotional gravity into The Demon Strikes Back, Chow's decision to revisit this thread only highlights the lightweight relationships at play this time around. The monk's love story in this film — with the enigmatic Felicity (Jelly Lin, the breakout star from The Mermaid), who shares the appearance and Chinese name of the leading character in Tsui's A Chinese Ghost Story — is too fleeting to leave a dramatic impact on the viewer.

With such a ragged premise and its reheated jokes — Chow is perhaps banking on a new generation of Chinese audiences being unaware of his classic "mo lei tau" comedies from his 1990s heyday — Tsui and his crew have credibly teased out a technical marvel. For Chow, the ringing tills and surpassed box-office records should be a sign of how he could now afford to slow down, go back to the drawing board and decide how to bring his Journey to the West series to the pioneering, glorious end it deserves.

Production companies: Star Overseas, for a China Film Group, Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures, Xiangshan Zeyue Media, Premium Data Associates, Shanghai Tao Piao Piao Entertainment, Wanda Media, Guangzhou Jinyi Media Corporation, Zhejiang Hengdian Entertainment, Tianjin Maoyan Media, Maxtimes Culture (Tianjin) Films, Lianrui (Shanghai) Pictures, Huayi Brothers Media Group presentation
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Kris Wu, Kenny Lin, Yao Chen, Jelly Lin
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenwriters: Stephen Chow, with Kelvin Lee
Producers: Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Stephen Chow
Executive producers: La Peikang, Stephen Chow, Yang Wei, Wei Jie, Zhou Wenji, Li Jie, Zeng Moujun, Liu Rong, Li Xiaodong, Xu Tianfu, Chen Lizhi, Cai Yuan, Wang Zhongjun
Director of photography: Choi Sung-fai
Production designer: Yoshihito Akatsuka
Costume designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Editors: Tsui Hark, Li Lin, Zeng Wuxin
Music: Raymond Wong

In Mandarin or Cantonese

108 minutes