Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Journey to the West: Stephen Chow Unleashes the Monkey King

Wu Cheng’en’s classic Ming era novel is a big thick multi-volume work that has inspired many film adaptations drawn from various points throughout its epic time frame. Still, you might not find the exact story of Stephen Chow’s latest comedic spectacle in there, but several of the characters will certainly be familiar. The Monkey King and his fellow demons will tangle with a young and awkward Xuan Zang in Chow & co-director Derek Kwok’s Journey to the West (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a novice demon hunter, Xuan Zang hardly seems likely to reach enlightenment. However, he will do his best to fight the water demon plaguing a provincial fishing village in the go-for-broke opening sequence. While he is more effective than the charlatan that took the first crack at the creature, he is no match for the prowess of Miss Duan, a demon hunter extraordinaire. She does not think much of his use of a collection of nursery rhymes to appeal to the demons’ inner youthful goodness. Nevertheless, she falls for Xuan Zang hard, which confuses the devout Buddhist no end.

While Miss Duan handles the Water Demon with relative ease, KL Hogg (the Pig Demon) turns out to be elusively slippery.  Their pursuit of the latter will bring them into uncomfortably close contact with Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. At this point, all bets are off.

Wen Zhang (recognizable from Ocean Heaven) is appropriately wide-eyed and innocent as Xuan Zang, but the film is completely dominated by Shu Qi. As Miss Duan she shows all kinds of moves and a flair for physical humor we never knew she had in her. Watching her kick demon butt is a sight to behold, but it demonstrates the superior action opportunities for actresses in Chinese language cinema, especially when contrasted with their Hollywood counterpoints.

The prospective Expendabelles film is a case in point, with the embarrassing casting rumors centering around Meryl Streep (all dingos beware), Geena Davis (because nobody could ever get enough of Cutthroat Island), and Linda Hamilton (granted, T2 was great action film, over twenty years ago). On the other hand, every major Chinese language star takes on action roles throughout their careers, as a matter of course. Recent examples include Gwei Lun Mei in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Zhou Xun in the same film, as well as The Great Magician, Michelle Yeoh in nearly all her films, with Reign of Assassins being a recent example, Angelababy in Tai Chi Zero, Ziyi Zhang in The Grandmaster, and Mi Yang in Wu Dang. Now its Shu Qi’s turn and she makes the most of it.

When Shu Qi does her thing, Journey is wildly fun. Nevertheless, Chow did not return to the Monkey King character that made his name and reputation in A Chinese Odyssey just for a quick paycheck. As a reboot/prequel/film-within-the-margins, Journey starts as a massive beatdown and explodes on a cosmic scale, ending with more divine retribution than you will find in the entire Left Behind franchise. The message is simple—do not tick off Buddha.

So you have Shu Qi, a trio of demons, and an apocalyptic showdown. What more could you possibly need?  On the micro level, Ku Huen Chiu’s action choreography is impressively cinematic yet true to Chow’s eccentric aesthetic. On the macro level, Ken Law’s special effects really do not look like anything we have seen before. Plus “pseudo-model”-turned actress Chrissie Chau appears as Miss Duan’s lieutenant, Killer Four, giving her lessons in seduction that go fantastically awry. This is indeed the full assault to the senses Chow’s fans have been waiting for. Recommended with the enthusiasm of a fanboy, Journey to the West opens this Friday (3/7) in New York at the Cinema Village.