‘Journey to the West’ is a loose comedic adaptation of the namesake Chinese novel published in the 16th century (better known as simply ‘Monkey’, an abridged translation, in the west, as its more charismatic character is no other than the mischievous Monkey King). More precisely, this film revisits a specific part of the novel in which Buddhist-with-hair monk Xuan Zang (played by Zhang Wen) defeats a quaint group of demons in dire need of redemption… and some ass-kicking. Although this movie’s story is complete and self-contained, it’s also an obvious attempt to establish an epic saga that would show us the rest of the tale in future installments. Given the huge box-office success that ‘Journey to the West’ enjoyed, we can rejoice on the fact that sequels are more than probably coming our way. And that’s good news, because this is a good twist on a good story, so, good, good, good…
Yes, a 16th century literary classic, but fear no boredom because, first of all, ancient writers had a hell of an imagination and fun wasn’t an exclusive side effect of cinema; and, secondly, this film adaptation is brought to us by the one-and-only one-man-orchestra Stephen Chow, a comedy-fu virtuoso, on and off screen (‘Kung-Fu Hustle’, ‘Shaolin Soccer’…). Mr. Chow is no stranger to throwing good hits (as martial artist) and making even better ones (as screenwriter, producer and director). After a not-so-successful ‘Cj7’ (2008), Stephen stops his five year hiatus from directing with this great piece of fantasy entertainment, re-claiming his never lost crown as king of mo lei tau (his own kind of absurd comedy). Curiously, this is the first time he doesn’t appear on-screen in a movie he’s directing, but his absence is fully compensated, and brilliantly so, by an over-the-top cast that includes Bo Huang as the Monkey King, Shing-Cheung Lee as the Sand Monk, Show Luo as Prince Important and the beautiful and playful Qi Shu as Miss Duan, a daring demon hunter.
‘Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons’ is mainly a kung-fu fantasy comedy, all right, but that aren’t the only tones that Mr. Chow manages to boldly mix. I usually warn against too much genre shifting in a movie, as, also usually, playing around too much with audience’s expectations have unexpected consequences. But the other side of the high risk coin is high return; although ‘Journey to the West’ is in no way a radical departure from known filmic narrative, it gets to surprise us (which is surprising in and on itself), and for the best, most of the times. Taking into account that comedies are the easiest films to anticipate (at least, story-wise), this is no banal feat. It seems like Mr. Chow was determined to shatter my ‘rules’, as I always say that more than two screen-writers use to mean a weak screenplay that some suit thought could be mended pouring more (instead of better) talent, but ‘Journey to the West’ incorporates a record-breaking eight name list to its writing credits and, this time, the joke-hoarding fever worked for the better.
So, ‘Journey to the West’ is a funny, road-runner-style slapstick filled fantasy action, beautiful and disturbing at times, simultaneously naive and unapologetic with its use of violence, CGI-ridden film adaptation of an already surreal mixture of Chinese folk tales and religious myths from 5 centuries ago. Too big of a bite for almost anyone, but I guess Mr. Chow isn’t anyone, anyway. Even the ‘populist’ deviations from the classical fable (that I won’t mention in a spoiler-free review) are, in my prideful opinion, very adequate, as basic themes never change, but audiences do. And a lot of change can fit in 5 centuries. In short: ‘Journey to the West’ is a great choice if you want to have a great time.