AKA: New Chinese Odyssey
Director: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok
Producer: Stephen Chow, Wang Zhonglei
Cast: Wen Zhang, Shu Qi, Huang Bo, Chrissie Chow, Lee Sheung Ching, Eddie Yeung Lun, Tong Liya, Xing Yu
Running Time: 110 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Hong Kong star Stephen Chow is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable names in the industry, having spent the decade that was the 90’s as the quintessential director, writer and star of countless Hong Kong comedy classics.
The new millennium looked to bring even more good fortune his way. Embracing the use of CGI and having the stroke of genius to combine kung fu with soccer, the movie Shaolin Soccer (2001) was not only a hit locally, but proved to be Chow’s breakout into the international market. Shaolin Soccer was followed by the even more successful Kung Fu Hustle (2004), a Looney Tunes-inspired tale of hidden kung fu masters and mystical inner strength.
Just when things couldn’t seem any better, rumors started flying around that Hollywood had hired Chow to not only star as Kato – the role Bruce Lee made famous, in a big screen re-make of the 1960’s US TV show The Green Hornet – but also that they’d signed him up to sit in the director’s chair as well. Stephen Chow directing and co-starring in a mainstream Hollywood comedy, it was too good to be true! And indeed it was: early on in the production the studio announced that it wasn’t confident in Chow’s vision, leading him to walk away not only as director, but also as a cast member, eventually having the role of Kato be filled by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou.
With the exception of directing CJ7 (2008), the first time he took a step back from being the star by putting himself in a supporting role, Chow went quiet for the next 5 years, until finally, he returned in 2013 with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.
Journey to the West is a well-known Chinese novel, and has been told several times over the years, from the 70’s TV show Monkey Magic, to Jeff Lau’s A Chinese Tall Story (2005), to Chow’s own A Chinese Odyssey and its sequel, both released in 1995. Even as Conquering the Demons was in production, another movie was also being made alongside it which covered a different chapter of the tale, eventually released as The Monkey King (2014), starring Donnie Yen.
From the perspective of being a Stephen Chow movie, many of his fans will be disappointed to hear that it’s the first time he decides to stay completely behind the camera. However as soon as the titles start rolling, it quickly becomes clear that while he may not be there physically, his mark is still firmly stamped all over it.
Proceedings open with a highly entertaining 20 minute set piece of a river demon which is terrorizing a small fishing village. Enter an innocent demon hunter played by a frazzle haired Wen Zhang, who believes he can turn demons to do good by reading them nursery rhymes, and what plays out is a fun mix of CGI, stunt work, laugh-out-loud comedy, and genuine peril as a baby is attempted to be rescued from the demons jaws. It shouldn’t come as a spoiler to say that nursery rhymes aren’t particularly effective, which allows the gorgeous Shu Qi to make an impressive entrance as, shall we say, a slightly more aggressive demon hunter.
While Zhang is still a relative newcomer to the movie scene, debuting in The Founding of a Republic (2009), Shu Qi has been around since her infamous early days in the Category III romps such as Viva Erotica and Sex & Zen 2 during the mid 90’s. Both are reliable performers, and it’s their relationship with each other which gives the movie its emotional core amongst all the fantastical elements. Qi, if anything, sometimes threatens to steal the show from under Zhang, as she beats the living day lights out of any demon they come across, while Zhang tries to calmly make them see the error of their ways. It’s a hilarious mix, and one which draws some of the biggest laughs of the movie, of which there are many.
I confess to personally not being familiar with the sprawling novel on which the events are based, however, for those that are I’m sure it’ll quickly become clear that the storyline is that of how the character Xuan Zang becomes the divine monk Tripitaka, and accepts the mischievous Monkey King as his disciple. This of course means that the Monkey King also make an appearance, although unlike the Donnie Yen movie of the same name the character is thankfully not the focus of the whole runtime. That’s not the only thing we have to be thankful about, as unlike Yen’s teeth grindingly annoying version of the dirty damn ape, the Monkey King in Chasing the Demons is a ridiculously evil bastard of a beast.
Initially played in human form by the always watchable Huang Bo, after first being sought out to assist in capturing a particularly powerful pig demon, he’s able to manipulate the naïve Zhang into accidentally freeing him from his 500 year imprisonment. Once released the ugly, and actually rather scary looking, Monkey King takes on his traditional ape like appearance, and proceeds to go on a murderous rampage of anyone that tries to stop him, quickly making the pig demon that everyone’s spent most of the movie worrying about seem like a walk in the park.
If the events described in the last couple of paragraphs don’t exactly fit the bill of being a comedy, then it’s not entirely unexpected, as at times the story goes off into some surprisingly dark places, and when it does it does so effectively. However, like most of Chow’s best movies, he’s able to pull belly laugh inducing moments out of nowhere; whether it be from the numerous dry asides that certain characters deliver – or the expertly placed sight gags – you never go long without being reminded of Chow’s comic genius.
His visual flair is also still intact, and here just like in Kung Fu Hustle, there’s a heavy reliance on CGI. While the CGI is far from Hollywood standards, there appears to be a conscious decision to almost make the various demons and feats of magic seem like animation more than realistic beings. This decision works in the movie’s favor, helping to remind us that we’re watching a colorful Chinese folklore, not the next Lord of the Rings. The onscreen mayhem is orchestrated by action director Ku Huen Chiu, whose previous work includes collaborating with Jet Li on the likes of The Hitman and with Donnie Yen in the recent 14 Blades (2010). Here, he once again gets to work with some solid kung fu talent in the form of Xing Yu. For set pieces, Conquering the Demons certainly shouldn’t leave anyone wanting.
While 5 years might be the longest time Chow has gone without making a movie, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons thankfully proves that he hasn’t lost a step, and perhaps even more significantly, shows that he doesn’t need to be in front of the camera to still deliver his trademark hilarity. Now, let’s just hope we don’t have to wait for another 5 years for his next one.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10