I’ve been a fan of Stephen Chow since I was first introduced to his comedic style in Shaolin Soccer over ten years ago, but it wasn’t until just recently that it dawned on me how much Chow resembles a modern-day Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in regards to his storytelling sensibilities (and ability to wear multiple hats) while also pulling a lot of the persona of a Harold Lloyd character when he steps in front of the camera.
He takes many of the recognizable elements of classic slapstick comedy and its characters and toys with them just enough to make them his own on paper before making them his own on screen. He tells underdog stories, but his underdogs are endearingly arrogant. He also tells love stories, only his protagonists are not motivated by the affections of a woman. His heroes are self-centered and pathetically so. Yet, like the love interests in the film (eventually the hero comes around) we can’t help but fall in love with them no matter what it is that motivates them. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons puts us in very familiar Chow territory without, for the first time, the onscreen presence of Chow himself. Though, while it isn’t Stephen Chow in front of the camera, it still feels very much like Chow is in front of the camera.
Journey is a loose adaptation of a novel written centuries ago during the Ming Dynasty, and while it’s a work of fiction it does tell of a monk’s journey seeded deeply in the soil of Chinese folk religion and Buddhism. Conquering the Demons takes place, supposedly, as a prequel of sorts to the novel and introduces us to Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen), and it does this to comical and fantastical effect. Zang comes upon a village being terrorized by a fish demon and while his attempts to handle the demon by singing nursery rhymes (from his demon fighting nursery rhyme book) are mostly unsuccessful his naive bravery earns immediate attention from a more lethal demon hunter, Miss Duan (Shu Qi) who ends up his savior more than once.
Zang’s lone desire to reach enlightenment of the highest order by bringing out the goodness in the demons (who doesn’t turn good after Frère Jacques?) puts him on a path crossing a pig demon who has been preying on disillusioned travelers lured to his temple as a potential place to stay and eat. Not long after they’ve succumbed to the meaty deliciousness of a pork meal do they get introduced to the glistening demon in disguise and the truth of where they are; and coincidentally what they also just ate. Zang is able to see through the facade instantly, but has no skills to handle a demon of such magnitude (or any magnitude really if it isn’t a baby in a crib with a milk bottle). After being saved yet again by the swooning Miss Duan he confers with his master about how to deal with the pig demon and is pointed on a journey to locate the imprisoned Monkey King (himself a vicious demon) for assistance.
The ensuing journey pits Zang against the kinds of Looney Tunes-esque characters and situations that Chow does so well. Fans of his work will recognize a handful of familiar faces from Kung Fu Hustle with just as much cartoonery and slapstick antics as we’ve seen before and are likely to be welcomed with arms opened wide enough to hug a demon pig. An encounter with a barbaric group of demon hunters is especially humorous and starts a string of well-conceived/played comic scenes that rarely lets up from that point on; and when it does let up it’s because it’s either being serious about its material instead of having fun with it, or romantic and much credit to be bestowed upon Zhang Wen and Shu Qi for making their kindergarten-like relationship resonate so much.
It should also be pointed out that this is not completely a Chow production even behind the camera. Aside from this being his first film not acting while donning the director’s chair he’s also sharing the director’s chair with Chi-Kin Kwok whose 2010 film Gallants told of a pair of geriatric martial artists trying to save their comatose master’s teahouse. You should make a point of seeing both movies.
The Upside: Everything we’ve come to expect from a Stephen Chow martial arts comedy is in full force even though he’s offscreen; cartoon fun, grade school lovey-doveyness, exciting action and a cast that appears to be enjoying every minute of it
The Downside: Some scenes outstay their welcome and a small few fall flat altogether
On the Side: On February 14, 2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons supplanted Transformers: Dark of the Moon as having the highest grossing single-day box-office take in China’s history with $19.2 million USD. Here in the US meanwhile audiences suffered through the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation Save Haven which grossed the daily high of $8.8 million, all but solidifying the idea that only good things can happen if you’re not celebrating Valentine’s Day.