Chow's 'Journey' Thoroughly Entertains, But It's Not His Best

Directed by: Stephen Chow; Runtime: 110 minutes
Grade: B-

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons marks Stephen Chow's return to the director's chair following his departure from zany kung-fu comedy in CJ7, and the style of this production should make fans of Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer breathe a collective sigh of relief. Tapping into the spiritual fantasy lore of A Chinese Odyssey, another book-to-screen adaptation of the story that Chow participated in during the '90s as the Monkey King, he once again injects his wildly-inventive and unpredictable brand of slapstick action-comedy into the story of an untrained Buddhist demon hunter wandering the lands in search of evils to eradicate. Predictably, what Chow produces doesn't lack for purely entertaining escapism full of boundless physical comedy and fantasy, yet the restructuring of the episodic Chinese tale doesn't offer much more beyond those surface-level confections, where its story of self-discovery, deceit, and divine ascension struggle underneath cartoonish aspirations that simply try too hard.

The episodic nature of Journey to the West -- set in ancient China somewhere between (and within) the second and third stages of Wu Cheng'en's novel -- starts right away in Chow's film, beginning with a raucous, almost Jaws-like conflict between a dockside fishing village, a water demon, and a range of false and real demon hunters who come to their rescue. One of which is Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang, The Sorcerer and the White Snake), a trained but unsuccessful Buddhist monk whose sympathetic virtues, noble and earnestly felt under the doctrine of coaxing the positive out of negative entities, aren't enough to conquer the demon. The powers of Duan (Shu Qi, The Transporter), on the other hand, forcibly pick up where he leaves off, sending the young monk into a state of insecurity about his abilities under Buddha's teachings. From there, Journey to the West quickly moves along to Tang Sanzang's next encounters with other demons and demon hunters, fending off Duan's misguided attraction to him as he travels to the lair of the powerful Monkey King (Huang Bo, Legend of the Fist), a trapped but unruly demon, to aid in his quest.

Every location, spark of magic, and thunderous arrival of an other-worldly being snaps together into an immensely vivid and distinctive world within Journey to the West, working together with Chow's eye for the outlandish to embolden its high levels of fantasy. While the occasionally jerky creature effects surrounding massive fish, boars, and tigers -- not to mention the equivalent of a miniature King Kong -- aren't convincingly realistic, at all, there's something whimsical about their designs that still make them feel entwined in the fables being spun around Tang Sanzang. Chow picks up the slack in his signature exaggerated manipulations of the human body: faces getting indented with fists, expanding feet preparing to level a monumental stomp, and arms rapid-launching stacks of metal bracelets elevate the hand-to-hand fights with effects that, while overtly cartoonish, relish the fanciful without breaking immersion. Coupled with the meticulous and vibrant set designs, the director filters the oft-done story through a kaleidoscopic lens that gradually turns as the Buddhist monk voyages towards enlightenment.

While Journey to the West keeps the fantasy under control during scenes with subtler degrees of comedy, its broad-stroked attempts at telegraphing the bizarre and uproarious left me feeling perplexed instead of swept up in Chow's energy. Part of that comes from the script's inclination towards bleaker events this time around, where certain deaths leave a sour note ringing in the air that can't be just drowned out by brassy action, clashing in ways that feel oddly disproportionate. Others moments are, quite simply, too overzealous for their own good: from accidentally controlling other people like puppets during a seduction sequence to a guy repeatedly referring to himself as "Mr. Impotent" on accident, the gags simply go on too long to sustain the flickers of humor at their start. The great thing about Chow's wit in his previous films, especially Kung Fu Hustle, is that he had a clear grasp on the boundary separating exaggeration and over-exaggeration, knowing exactly how often and how far to cross it to appear endearingly loony. He's lost some of that perspective here, as if intentionally seeing how far he can push the waywardness beyond what's in previous versions of the story.

Submerged in all of Stephen Chow's zaniness within this fanciful setting, Journey to the West certainly knows how to deliver swift, memorable action, though. While it's disappointing to not see the director appear in this one as he's done in his previous works (and his absence is assuredly felt), the martial-arts beats, the various talents of the demon hunters, and the general chaos of flying bodies cram so much vigor into the film that he almost makes you forget about that. Choreographer Kuk Hin-Chiu, who also worked on Hustle, has very few -- if any -- sequences to coordinate without something mystical encroaching on the action, and he takes that challenge with aplomb. The initial sequence involving an intimidating, tentacled fish demon is a riot in terms of raw activity, while the breadth of Duan's powers involving her machine-gun flinging of golden rings deliver a lot of excitement. Chow does surrender too much to fantastical forces and anime-caliber bombast at times, especially once the Monkey King enters the picture in all its glory, but it all works well enough without too much eye-rolling.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Journey to the West lies under the surface, or what it's lacking there. Ultimately a parable about the struggles of persevering with one's belief, from a crisis of faith in oneself to love interests that might distract from their spiritual search, the script flirts with more tangible ideas than what ultimately materializes in Wen Zhang's scrappy-haired, wide-eyed unlikely hero. When his moment of comprehension finally comes in the story -- easily the most grandiose display across the entire film, both expressively and physically -- its emotional ambitions ring hollow and shows symptoms of getting contorted in translation from page to screen, notably how it handles and resolves the awkward romantic tangles between he and Duan, despite a sprightly performance from Shu Qi. That might fall into the realm of over-thinking a film featuring a bloodthirsty monkey, Mr. Impotent, and voodoo shenanigans gone wrong, but it's difficult to ignore when the film almost literally slams down an obvious theological point at its end. Chow's films are at their best when inducing grins and revealing a little bit of heart, though, and thankfully there's enough in his return to kung-fu fantasy that does exactly that.

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