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

It’s hard to believe 10 years have elapsed since Stephen Chow’s frenetic, genius comedy masterpiece Kung Fu Hustle was released in China. At least the intervening years haven’t dulled Chow’s comic style, as his latest film, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, is just as manic, hilarious, and twisted as his earlier feature. The film’s a loose adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, China’s most popular traditional novel, but it forgoes the serious spiritual focus of the tale and instead turns the story into ample fodder for a series of slapstick set pieces.

The film follows the hapless Buddhist monk Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as he travels about the countryside, trying to combat demons and achieve enlightenment. In Wu’s text Xuanzang is a stoic master, the epitome of the Buddhist monk, but here he is nothing more than a simple-hearted man who desires to combat demons but doesn’t have the stomach or the skills to defeat them. Instead he insists on trying to change their hearts by reciting children’s nursery rhymes to them. There are many moments in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons where Xuanzang foolishly attempts to calm down a demon with rhymes, but fails hilariously, escaping from death only by his own naive luck and the intervention of demon hunter, Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who idolizes Xuanzang’s purity and pursues him romantically.

Chow revels in the dissonance between the Buddhist ideal Xuanzang is meant to embody and the absurd vaudevillian he’s transformed him into. Like many Chinese stories, Chow even manages to show how the fool and the saint are necessarily one and the same. Chow is a director who loves embracing contradictions in his work. In Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons he focuses on characters that embody such contradictions. Xuanzang is the fool destined to be the hero. Miss Duan, played with remarkable energy by Shu Qi, is an impressive warrior with astounding physical prowess, but she desires nothing more than romantic love.

Duan spends much of the first act saving Xuanzang from his tactical blunders, while also exercising the kind of influence over events that is lacking in most Hollywood female action heroes. But she’s also doggedly committed to making Xuanzang love her, if only because it is the exact opposite of what is expected of a powerful warrior. You could attempt to complain that Duan’s shift from demon hunting to pursuing Xuanzang is a usual shoehorning of a female character into a romantic role, but the fact that romance is the one area where Duan does not excel introduces conflict to her plot. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is all about subverting expectations. To have the warrior struggle at romance only furthers this obsession with playing with convention.

The tonal schizophrenia on display results in a film that’s more than a little insane, but one that also showcases Chow’s directorial mastery. He somehow manages to make a film that is simultaneously funny and scary, romantic and cynical, idiotic and profound.

His ability to run a gamut of emotions is on display in the bizarre and extended opening sequence. We see a gentle fisherman in a small village warn his daughter about the dangers of demons in the water, only to promptly scare her a moment later by diving into the water and covering himself in his fishing net to appear to be a monster. The little girl cries then laughs and her father revels in his joke. But Chow doesn’t stop with the image of a father delighting in play with his daughter. He cuts to a shot echoing Steven Spielberg’s Jaws: an underwater view of something honing in on the man’s legs. The man is grabbed from beneath and dragged around the water, all as his daughter watches in glee, thinking that her father is having fun with her. That the man is soon shown to have been eaten by a water demon that resembles the monster from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host erodes the daughter’s glee, and confounds Western audiences’ expectations of tone.

It was inevitable that Chow would introduce an actual water demon to the scenario to show how the viewer’s reaction to the scene is similar to the girl’s. We laugh at the arrival of the demon after the man has joked about its presence, then are horrified as his daughter fails to realize she’s laughing at his death, and then laugh again at the abruptness of a cut to the man’s funeral where the villagers’ faces are frozen in an exaggerated vision of sadness. The joke turns to a scare, and then into a joke again, and most of the film follows a similar structure as Xuanzang appears and deals with various demons terrorizing innocent travellers and peasants.

Eventually Xuanzang’s path leads him to an encounter with the fabled Monkey King (Huang Bo) and the story starts to congeal into something familiar to Wu’s origin tale. But this final transformation of the narrative into its more traditional form only makes Chow’s intentions even clearer. Chow is attempting to demonstrate how the film’s very genre is an act of subverting expectations.

In its broad strokes Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons resembles most other adventure epics dominating movie theatres nowadays. It’s based off a popular pre-existing property, it’s an origin story, and it sets up the possibility of sequels to follow. It could have been another gritty reboot of a familiar tale, for even Chinese cinema has been swept up in the wave of dark origin stories, particularly umpteenth retellings of the stories of Wong Fei-hung and Ip Man, which are grittier and more-serious-minded than the versions that’ve come before.

Fortunately, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is not gritty. It doesn’t mire its character in dour, gritty realism in an effort to cater to modern viewers’ sensibilities. It takes a serious-minded tale and turns it into a vaudevillian romp full of pratfalls and bumbling demon hunters. Few filmmakers can disassemble and play with a mode of storytelling with such glee and clarity of purpose.

8 out of 10

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013, China)

Directed by Stephen Chow; co-directed by Derek Kwok; written by Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok, Xin Huo, Yun Wang, Fung Chih Chiang, Lu Zheng Yu, Lee Sheung Shing, Y.Y. Kong; starring Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, Huang Bo, Show Luo, and Chrissie Chau.