Journey To The West: Conquering the Demons (Xi You Xiang Mo Pian)

China (2013) Dirs. Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok

Novice demon hunter Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) believes that benevolence is the way to treat demons and not violence, using a book of nursery rhymes given to him by his master (Sihan Cheng) as his source of rehabilitating mantras. This clashes with the violent methods of female demon hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), whom he meets on many missions. While on the trail of a Pig Demon (Bingqiang Chen) the pair share an innocent kiss but it is enough to make Duan fall in love with Zang – although his Buddhist aspirations prevent him from reciprocating. Meanwhile Zang learns that the only person who knows how to defeat the Pig Demon is the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Bo Huang), who has been imprisoned by Buddha in a holy mountain for five hundred years.

Writer/director/actor/martial artist Stephen Chow returns to the big screen after a five year absence after 2008’s E.T-esque family friendly outing CJ7 (which still hasn’t had a UK release yet). Known largely over here for his mega hits Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, Chow’s catalogue runs deeper than that with two of his earlier hits, A Chinese Odyssey parts one and two, being comic retellings of the legendary Journey To The West fables which have proved to be a fertile source of material for many a film, TV series, anime (Dragonball Z) and much more.

It might seem odd for Chow to retread familiar turf for his latest work, but this is a prequel to his prior two films, taking some liberties with the back stories of the main characters yet staying relatively faithful to the original material. Chow himself doesn’t appear in this film but his trademark style which blends whacky humour, martial arts and CGI set pieces is very much present and correct.

We first meet Zang upon his arrival at a small fishing village where the waters are cursed by a fish demon. An opportunist Taoist priest (Min Hun Fung) kills a giant stingray and claims to have solved the problem but Zang is adamant the demon is still alive. The appearance of a monstrous human eating fish proves him right but it is Duan and her kick ass ways that sorts the fishy fiend out once and for all. This makes up the first half hour of the film and what an exciting and tense filled thirty minutes it is, featuring some heat stopping thrills and Jackie Chan influenced comedy stunts. The CGI fish is the strongest of the unearthly creatures on display in this film by a mile, looking the least “cartoonish”.

During the hunt for KL Hog the Pig Demon, Duan and Zang meet up again with the latter having the unpleasant task of sucking out the demon spirit directly from the mouth of the pig himself! On the plus side, it requires further mouth to mouth action, this time with Duan for the spirit to be sealed away and while this sets Duan’s heart a fluttering, Zang is only interested in a “greater love” that Buddha can show him. All I can say is that Zhang Wen must be one hell of an actor to pretend he isn’t charmed by Shu Qi! This leads to a comedic subplot as Duan tries every trick in the book to get the would-be monk’s attention. One particularly funny scene sees the tomboyish Duan getting lessons on being sexy from her underling Si (Chrissie Chow), who uses an obedience spell which forces the wearer of a charm to copy the actions of the bearer. Unfortunately the charm ends up on Zang who unwillingly performs an alluring dance for the burly men of Duan’s group of hunters!

The film slows down during the second act when Zang and Duan finally find the Monkey King, trapped in a small cave within the mountain from which he cannot leave. For whatever reason, these scenes are bloated and woefully protracted, taking a huge chunk out of the momentum built in the first half. And as hard as everyone tries, the attempts at humour during this section falls flat; only a seductive dance routine from Shu Qi goes some way to make this tolerable. Thankfully things pick up in the final act when a gaff by Zang leads to a battle royale among the demon hunters and varied spirits of the land, in a CGI heavy but vastly entertaining climax.

As mentioned before, Chow chose to set this tale before the storylines of A Chinese Odyssey meaning Zang is the pre-ordained monk we all know as Tripitaka. And what of his three disciples Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey? If these names have triggered a memory from the childhood in readers of a certain vintage who, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, would be glued to BBC2 at 6:00pm on a weeknight to watch a badly dubbed Japanese show called Monkey, this film makes a nice companion piece to your trip down memory lane.

It has to be said that for someone who has embraced CGI like no other in Chinese cinema, the effects here are very hit and miss. As mentioned earlier, some of the renderings of the creatures look too much like cartoons and stick out like a dove in a nest full of crows. Others are quite magnificent, such as the fish demon who has one scary sneery face!! The green screen work is on occasion also too blatant (Duan’s dance against the moonlight backdrop is the worst offender but really, who is looking at the background when Shu Qi is on the screen?) but overall, the hits outweigh the misses and the top notch cinematography makes it easy to let the flaws pass.

A saggy middle section aside, Journey To The West is a return to form for Chow and the record breaking box office takings in China attest to this. For anyone finding recent historical epics too po faced this action packed ton of fun is the perfect remedy!