Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
aka 大話西遊之三藏付魔 aka Xi you xiang mo pian
Written by Stephen Chow Sing-Chi
Directed by Stephen Chow Sing-Chi and Derek Kwok Chi-Kin
Stephen Chow makes his triumphant return behind the camera for Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons! While early trailers played up the comedic aspects, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is thematically very different from what you would expect. It is mainly a horror comedy with romance elements. A sort of prequelized tale to the Journey to the West mythos, with the usual liberties and elements of true love and wackiness sprinkled in.
Stephen Chow spent most of the time since CJ7 running his own company (including work on the CJ7 cartoon) and randomly getting attached and unattached to various Hollywood projects. Even with this return to directing, Chow did not appear in front of the camera, despite rumors to the contrary. Those rumors have even started for the eventual sequel, of which I don’t think work has even begun. Whatever Stephen Chow wants to do is fine by me, because despite the flaws in Journey to the West 2013, it is still a marked improvement over a lot of the boring big budget garbage coming out of Chinese cinema lately.
Chow’s usage of actors with nonstandard physical appearances is still happening, the look of the background actors becoming as much of their role as their actions. There is even a sort of comment on the usual lack of problems with a woman getting hit by a man in Hong Kong comedies. Everyone freaks out when it looks like Shu Qi is about to get smacked by Monk Chen, and of course she then beats up the guy who almost hit her.
Chow’s fantasy retake is unconnected to the prior A Chinese Odyssey films, and is stylistically very different. The depiction of Monkey King is more of a mean-spirited animal than a practical joker, but again this is before he became “reformed”. But don’t fret, the classic songs from the original Chow films still show up in unexpected ways.
The true main character is the Monk Chen Xuan-zang (more commonly known as Tripitaka), here just beginning his monkhood service as a demon hunter. Chen Xuan-zang follows a particular philosophy where there is good in everyone, even demons, and he doesn’t set out to kill the monsters. His travels cause him to repeatedly cross paths with professional demon hunter Duan, who ruthlessly stops her targets with magic flying rings she wears as a bracelet.
Soon their continual meetings is revealed to be more than just an accident, as Duan chases after Chen Xuan-zang in an attempt to get him to marry her so she can settle down. The Monk is adamant in his devotion to his faith, dismissing romance as “Lesser Love” and he is following “Greater Love”. But despite the problems, their paths continue to merge, leading to drama when the Monkey King is unleashed.
The different portrayals of Monkey King by Huang Bo and then some guy in makeup are a great example of building a complex character. Monkey King appears as a friendly, grateful guy who is convinced to help to try to regain some cosmic karma. But he’s far more than that, and soon the demeanor changes as his plan for freedom falls into place. Monkey King is then a wild animal in a costume, basically a cartoon character, who then has a big cartoon violence fight with several demon hunting champions, each with their own ridiculous powers. The kindly grey Huang Bo would not work in these action sequences, just as the monkey costume version would not be believable as a captured and tormented soul yearning for freedom.
Chow’s borrowing of other properties takes a turn to the lazy here when various scenes are lifted wholesale
most notably an action cinematic that is swiped directly from the Asura’s Wrath video games. Other characters are takes on some classic wuxia characters through history, including one called Almighty Foot, who is basically Sek Kin from The Furious Buddha’s Palm, right down to the identical foot growing sequence (even the music and foot growing sound effects are borrowed!) but with a bit of CGI enhancement. Heck, even the concept of a prequel-style movie with Tripitaka in a love story was done before (by Jeff Lau, in A Chinese Tall Tale!)
All is forgiven thanks to Prince Important, who is Law Chi-Cheung doing a ridiculous impression of Stephen Chow. He plays him sickly and carted around by four “beauties” – older women who talk back at everything Prince Important tries to do to look cool.
Journey to the West‘s biggest problem is it needed an editor. The pacing in any Stephen Chow flick is always off, but here it also rather long. Certain comedic scenes could have been cut down without losing anything important, and making the film tighter as a whole. While not as original as I could have wanted, and prone to meandering off on random topics, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was still a joy to watch, and hopefully helps give a needed kick to the seat of Chinese big budget cinema to bring more to the table than the blandness. Anything that ups the game is always welcome.
An idyllic day in the fishing village quickly turns to horror as a man is killed by a water demon in front of his young daughter. A monk is brought in to purge the demon, he kills a giant manta ray and everyone hails as they think the job is done. But fellow Monk Chen Xuan-zang knows the score, and knows that manta ray was just a peaceful giant, the real demon still out there. The village rejects his warnings and strings him up. But their poolside celebration attracts the real demon, who begins to feed and everyone panics. This leads to a big action set piece involving jumping and flipping fish and saving babies and actual casualties. Some of the scenes are particularly frightening, and one can imagine parents who brought their young kids to see the latest Stephen Chow comedy suddenly having to deal with many nightmares that night.
The demon is captured and reverts to human form, at which Monk Chen then begins playing lullabies to him to try to appeal to his good side. Here he gets showboated by Miss Duan, a fellow demon hunter who captures the Water Demon in a bag, which wraps down to a Pokeball where the Water Demon has been transformed into a tiny stuffed Christmas ornament.
Monk Chen confers with his spiritual leader, who reassures him despite the Monk’s regret at the lives he didn’t save. His leader is an eccentric who spends his days drawing on walls, even drawing the tales of the demons Chen will eventually hunt. Here we learn that the Water Demon was once a good guy whose attempt to save a drowning child was mistaken as a kidnapping, and he was murdered and in his anger became a Water Demon to seek revenge.
There is a restaurant that serves roasted pig that is very tasty, but as two unfortunate travelers discover, the proprietor, KL Hog, is not just a good cook, but also a creepy demon guy who feeds the flesh of his victims to new customers. KL Hog is a shiny silent character who moves around like a dancing puppet doll, he cannot speak because his true form is a horrible pig shape.
Of course, next to enter the restaurant is Monk Chen, who can see through the illusions of happy customers to see the bodies, and he’s quickly followed by Duan, who uses her Infinite Flying Ring to lay waste to the demons. KL Hog proves a more powerful opponent, injuring her and requiring Duan to ask Chen for help. Leading to some gross comedy during the action as the pig’s evil spirit must be sucked out into Chen’s mouth, which is then sucked into Duan’s mouth and spit into a magic bag. Yes, it’s an excuse for them to kiss. The magic bag is not powerful enough, and the pig soon breaks free as a wild CGI hog.
They escape, KL Hog not chasing because the pig is injured as well. Duan has Chen dress her wound, which just happens to be in an area where she has to undress for him to get to. She also sets up a moment to kiss, then berates him for not catching it.
Monk Chen runs off, and is told by his master that KL Hog was kind ugly man whose wife cheated on him with a handsome man, and they murdered him with a rake. His hatred turned him into demon who vowed to kill women who lust after handsome men. Also Monk Chen should ask for help from the Monkey King, as he is a more powerful demon than KL hog. Monkey King has been imprisoned by Buddha under Five Fingers Mountain for 500 years.
That journey ends quicker than he though as he runs into Duan’s group of demon hunters, which has a hilarious introduction that uses the more serious tone of the film to get away with a cool twist. There is also a great scene where Duan attempts to seduce Monk Chen by dancing seductively thanks to being controlled by her Little Sis (played by Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) with an Obedience Charm. Of course this backfires spectacularly, and soon people are doing the wrong thing, and then the wrong people are controlling the wrong people. In all, the bits here do little to advance the plot, and are more a bunch of comedy gags that have a little characterization sprinkled in.
KL Hog returns and the group makes a getaway in their cart thanks to the Ironblood System – air bags and hammers – but even they cannot outrun KL Hog. But the end is not nigh, as soon some other demon hunters show up and chase off KL Hog. Xing Yu is a guy who projects giant versions of the animals that are the namesakes for whatever kung fu style he is doing – a tiger and a mantis are shown. There is also a guy named Almighty Foot, who has one tiny foot and one normal sized foot, and is done up like Sek Kin. Finally, Prince Important is there, a sickly and pale man who is carried by four beauties far past their prime. It’s important to know Prince Important is not Prince Impotent. Please don’t make that mistake.
Duan rips up Monk Chen’s 300 Nursery Rhymes book in anger as he storms off alone to Five Fingers Mountain. Which is after a long journey through many green-screen sets!
Monk Chen locates the underground cave that Monkey King is in, and inside is a friendly grey man who is happy to see anyone. He seems a pretty cool guy, and is quickly convinced to help take down KL Hog so he can get some good karma. And also because Duan soon shows up and gives Monkey King someone to hit on. He teaches her to dance so she can lure out KL Hog.
The Pig Demon takes the bait, and is soon reduced to a piglet with fangs thanks to the Monkey King. Duan transforms the demon into another ornament, giving both demons trapped this way to Monk Chen. Then the two get into another marriage argument as Monkey King is trapped in the same room and can’t go anywhere. Eventually she leaves for good, and as Monk Chen is leaving, he helps remove a lotus that blocks Monkey King’s view of the sky.
Which turns out to be what Monkey King was scheming all along, as it was that lotus that kept him trapped in the cave! Soon he transforms into full power, a shorter guy in full monkey king makeup wearing an opera costume. As Monk Chen drops to pray to Buddha, Monkey King rips out his hair demanding he stop. But he’s then interrupted by the three Demon Hunters from earlier.
The animal guy is quickly and brutally taken care of, while Almighty Foot grows his foot gigantic and goes al Furious Buddha’s Palm on Monkey King, who then goes all nail on Almighty Foot’s foot. Finally, Prince Important has a cool pack of flying swords that give us a nice CG sequence but ultimately fail.
As the three hunters are no more, Monkey King turns to take out Monk Chen, but Duan appears again to save him. He begs her to run, as Monkey King is too powerful, but she refuses, and pays the ultimate price. Monk Chen tells her he loves her as she dies, then Monkey King destroys her body out of spite. But it’s too late, having a romance was the little thing Monk Chen needed to achieve enlightenment.
Soon Buddha himself powers a mountain statue against Monkey King, as the big budget works overtime to borrow something from a video game.
Monkey King is helpless against the power against him, and soon is in a field and agrees to become the servant to Monk Chen, Duan’s Infinite Flying Ring transforming to the crown on Monkey King’s head that shrinks to control him. The other two demons – Water and Pig – become Sandy and Pigsy, and soon the four head out on their Journey to the West, complete with theme song and walking sequence.
And as the heroes roam westward, remember that it is a long journey, which means that sequels are easily written!
Rated 7/10 (citizen, demon doll, demon doll, artwork, artwork, tamed demon, mantis style)
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