Stephen Chow isn’t as familiar to Western audiences as contemporaries like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. However, to fans of Asian cinema, his unique blend of martial arts and gonzo humor has separated him from the pack. He came close to playing Kato in the Seth Rogen production of The Green Hornet, but probably felt stymied by working within the Hollywood system. Outside of China, Chow’s two biggest successes have been as the writer, director, producer, and star of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is Chow’s first film since 2008’s CJ7, a saccharine take on E.T. that wasn’t as critically praised. Journey is definitely a return to form though hardcore followers may be disappointed that Chow has decided to stay behind the camera. Journey is stepped in Chinese folklore and based on the 16th century novel, which has been adapted many times for the stage and screen. In fact, it had inspired one of Chow’s earliest hits, the two part A Chinese Odyssey.
Journey follows a young Buddhist monk named Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) as he travels the Chinese countryside hunting down demons. Tang believes these demons were once good, but turned malevolent because of the cruelties of humanity. The compassionate monk believes he can turn them away from the dark side by singing nursery rhymes. Rival demon hunter Duan (Shu Qi) takes a different approach. Duan uses her martial arts skills and a pair of mystical weapons. One of them is a golden bracelet called the Infinite Flying Ring, which can expand and multiply. Then, there’s her version of the Ghostbuster Ecto Trap, a bag that can ensnare any demon and turn them into a paper ornament. Despite their opposing philosophies, Duan falls hard for the sweet natured Tang, who doesn’t reciprocate. He is on a path to enlightenment and has shunned Earthly love.
Together, they reluctantly face some pretty nasty creatures such as a pig demon who butchers wayward travelers. Their journey puts them on a collision course to face the legendary Sun Wukong (Huang Bo), the Monkey King who has been imprisoned inside a mountain for five hundred years by Buddha himself.
Journey to the West opens with a sequence heavily influenced by Jaws and flavored with Chow’s own brand of comedy and action. A seaside village is attacked by an enormous fish demon, which has been beached onto a long wooden plank, which has been turned into a giant see-saw. Dozens of villagers jump onto it and are flung in all directions. Later, we meet several wacky characters that could have only sprung from the mind of Chow, such as a band of demon hunters who travel in a wooden vehicle powered by breath. We also meet three other hunters each competing for the glory of defeating China’s deadliest demons. Fist of the North Star (Xing Yu) is a master of the animal styles of kung fu. The Almighty Foot (Zhang Chao Li) is a white-haired fighter with the ability to expand his right foot to mammoth proportions. Finally, there’s Prince Important (Show Luo), a pale and pampered pretty boy who travels with an entourage flinging rose petals at his feet.
The biggest detraction to the film comes from Chow’s overreliance on CGI. At best, the special effects look like something out of a video game. At worst, they appear to be on the level of a bad SyFy channel movie of the week. For a fierce warrior, Duan spends too much screen time pining over Tang and coming up with bizarre schemes to win him over. Still, Shu Qi is charming enough to make it work and the idea of a kung fu manic pixie dream girl is intriguing.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is clean and skin tones are natural, but the colors aren’t as bold and rich as they could be.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. with both the original Mandarin language track and an alternate English dubbed track. I didn’t bother with the latter, but the Mandarin track features some excellent sound design for the fight scenes, particularly when it comes to flying objects.
The Blu-ray includes a series of short behind-the-scenes featurettes. They are: Stunts & Special Effects (1:41), Cast & Characters (2:24), Director Stephen Chow (2:39), The Laughs (2:20), Production Design (1:20), and Choreography (1:45).
You’ll also get the film’s theatrical trailer and previews for other Magnolia releases such as Alan Partridge and The Protector 2.
Film Value: 6
Considering the subtitle, Journey to the West is clearly meant to serve as the start of a big-budget franchise, a sort of Monkey King Begins. It will be interesting to see where Chow takes the series. Journey doesn’t reach the levels of Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, but it is a fun and inventive martial arts comedy.