Review: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

From Melbourne With Love

A survey of the modest collection of obsolete optical media in my apartment reveals 32 Stephen Chow titles, a ratio of at least 5:1 over any other actor or director. Rather than being an irrelevant humblebrag on my part, this elucidates the fact that there is a global audience for Hong Kong’s popular cinema and — more importantly — Chow, whom I still consider its shining star. My take on his most recent film, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, can only be expressed from a personal standpoint. So, what follows are notes from a fan containing little critical opinion; when I think about this film, this is what I’m thinking.

Stephen Chow’s career in Hong Kong film and television has spanned more than 30 years and he was so prolific through the 1990s that he is rumored to have acted in 20 films in a year. During this time, Chow experienced fame unimaginable to a western audience and made his directorial debut in 1994 with From Beijing With Love (a super-fly James Bond parody). It wasn’t until Miramax distributed an infamously edited (butchered) and dubbed version of his breakthrough hit Shaolin Soccer in Australia that his films reached a wider audience here. Chow’s efforts to learn English and perform his own dub in the film — following in the footsteps of his idol Bruce Lee — may have helped in translating the humor, but Shaolin Soccer’s belated release sabotaged its true potential. Nevertheless a copy eventually found itself into just about every video store (remember those?) here. This is where my own story as a fan begins… only to culminate, 8 years later, standing in a crowded line for a late session of Journey to the West on opening night.

Shaolin Soccer prompted me to track down as many of Chow’s older films as I could through the usual channels (shout-out to the dusty upstairs room stacked with Asian VHS at Picture Search in Richmond). By the time his next film, Kung Fu Hustle, premiered at MIFF 2005 — a year the festival paid appropriate attention to Hong Kong’s popular cinema — I’d become a fully fledged fan and, embarrassingly, even a member of an English-speaking Stephen Chow fan forum that has since ceased to exist. Stephen and the lead cast were here for the festival and I attended the screening and succeeding Q&A holding a giant lollipop, just like the one in the film.

At the time, the media made reference to the fact that despite Hustle’s premiere at MIFF, it had actually been screening at Chinatown Cinema for some months. Ironically, when Chow’s next film CJ7 (an ET-style kids fantasy film that left some critics underwhelmed) came out four years later, the only place it screened was Chinatown Cinema. Just like the ill-fated Chinatown Cinema, Chow’s place in the Australian spotlight seemed to fade. His responsibilities as a director had also notably slowed down his output. Following CJ7 came an animated retelling of the movie, targeted at an even younger audience than the original.

His last major work preceding Journey to the West was Hip-Hop-dance romantic-comedy Jump, a collaboration with fellow star-turned-director Stephen Fung (responsible for the current Tai Chi trilogy). Moving away from his role as an actor, Chow wrote and produced Jump. Unfortunately, the film was cursed by a scandal involving leading man Edison Chen taking his laptop in for a service. All of Chen’s scenes were subsequently re-shot with another actor. Despite the film’s lukewarm response and Communist undertones, I (a starved Chow fan) enjoyed it. But, after recent years staring at a seemingly stagnant Stephen Chow IMDB page, I’d resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t even get to see his new film in a decent cinema, let alone see it gain widespread success. I’m happy to say, I was wrong.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is inspired by 16th century Chinese text Journey to the West. Just in case anybody doesn’t know the book, the infamous Japanese television-show Monkey was also based on this story. Interestingly, the film’s closing music seems to tip its hat to Godiego and their closing theme to the first season of Monkey, ‘Gandara’, though I may have dreamt that. By far a newcomer to the story, Chow starred in two ’90s adaptations of Journey to the West playing the role of Monkey, but this time opted to stay seated in the director’s chair. His absence in the film is obviously disappointing, but, fortunately, does little to stop all of his stylistic idiosyncrasies shining through. The staging of the first scene, where demon hunters protect lowly villagers from computer-generated animal gods, is reminiscent of Kung Fu Hustle’s Pig Sty Alley, and is equally as perfect entertainment. The construction of the shantytown fishing village on water is spectacular, and reminiscent of Waterworld. Fortunately, Journey’s box office efforts are far less tragic than Waterworld’s. In fact, the film appears to be smashing all kinds of records in China and Chow’s production company seems to be having disputes with its mainland partner over the sea of money coming in.

Like most of Chow’s films, this comedic adventure is bound by a romantic story — this time between the film’s two leads, Zhang Wen and the legendary Shu Qi. Both deliver great performances, and both manage to adapt to Chow’s comedic style well; two scenes in the film had the entire cinema cheering hysterically. Most things written about Chow will contain some reference to mo le ti (loosely translated to ‘makes no sense’), the brand of ridiculous humour he popularized. Whilst it’s not majorly prevalent, some of the film’s funnier scenes are very reminiscent of this style. Tragically, there are a number of puns and language gags that are impossible for a foreign audience to entirely understand. This is bought home in the cinema by the laughter of a Chinese-literate audience at what goes over monolingual English-speakers’ heads. Interestingly, this film screened here in Mandarin instead of Cantonese.

For anyone still reading, here are some examples of Chow’s famous humour:

The rest of the story I will leave for you to discover. Due to the film’s success, we should expect a sequel; especially given that Chow has just signed on to build a Journey to the West theme park in China. The film is screening here at Hoyts in Melbourne and Sydney, distributed by Dream Movie Australia. Although it’s unlikely to receive huge amounts of local attention, it’s worth noting that Jake Wilson gave the film a whopping 4 stars in The Age last week. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons will be playing for at least a few more weeks and is well worth a $19 ticket — its undeniable hilarity trumps anything else out at the moment.

9 animal gods out of 10.
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