Tuesday, July 04, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Journey to the West—The Demons Strike Back

The good thing about pilgrimages is they are long and can thus accommodate sequels. Of course, epics never got any more epic than Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. Slivers and segments of the classical tome have been endlessly adapted by Chinese-language film and television, so it is not so surprising Stephen Chow came back for seconds. This time around, he serves as screenwriter and producer, but Tsui Hark replaces him at the helm of Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Frankly, Tang Sanzang (a.k.a. Xuan Zang, a.k.. Tang Seng, a.k.a. Tripitaka) should not be having dreams of glory, but he will soon be brought back down to earth. At the end of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the mischievous demigods Pigsy, Sandy (who is now unexpectedly fishy), and Sun Wukong, better known as the Monkey King, were redeemed and subsequently pledged themselves as Tang’s disciples. Tang is firm in his purpose, but his heart still grieves for Miss Duan, his demon-busting colleague and true love.

However, life on the road has weakened their solidarity. The Monkey King is erratic at the best of times, but lately he has practically been at Tang’s throat, with Pigsy and Sandy quietly egging him on. They are no longer a cohesive unit, even when they blunder into country lodge filled with demons. Sun Wukong always senses them first. Partly it is probably due to his nose and partly due to Tang’s supernatural lack of intuition. However, their internal fissures threaten to violently cleave apart when they enter the kingdom of a mad, child-like prince worthy of Lewis Carroll. It is only thanks to his elegant minister Guanyin that his realm continues to function at all. Fortunately, she takes a bit of a shine to Tang or he would probably be executed for being a party-pooper. However, the slave-girl songstress Felicity really complicates matters.

Visually, Strike Back is an utter marvel of set-piece lunacy. Never intimidated by a little spectacle, Tsui’s strategy is clearly to go big, then bigger, and then bigger still. Who needs acid when we have Tsui’s candy-colored surreal wuxia fantasyscapes? He has the macro and then some, but the micro level of character development is a little thin. In all honesty, the film misses Shu Qi’s Miss Duan for reasons beyond the obvious. Perhaps recognizing the charisma gap, Hark and Chow periodically bring her back like Ben Kenobi in the later Star Wars films, but it is not enough.

Still, Kenny Lin holds up his end as the Monkey King. He does not go as completely feral-creature nuts as Aaron Kwok rocking out in The Monkey King 2, but he definitely came to play. In contrast, Kris Wu mostly comes across like a petulant jerk as Tang. However, Yao Chen is wonderfully regal as Guanyin and Jelly Lin is quite poignant (and arguably helps bail out Wu) as Felicity.

Even if you think you dig bombast and over-the-top special effects, Strike Back still might wear you out. One has to admire its inventiveness, but too often the human element is overshadowed by the maelstroms on screen. Ticketholders should also be advised there is a stinger worth sitting through the credits for. Recommended mostly for the oh’s and ah’s of its surface razzle-dazzle, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back screens this Saturday (7/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.