Movie #18: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

"Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons"As a kid, I grew up hearing Chinese folk tales as bedtime stories. The most well-known of them all is the Journey to the West: the story of the trickster-god Monkey King and his companions as they travel across an ancient China plagued by demons. When I heard that Stephen Chow, writer and director of martial arts hits such as Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle was going to apply his over-the-top, special-effects-heavy, crazily-comedic touch to the classic tale, I was all in. What I didn’t realize was that this movie was going to be more of a prequel, depicting the circumstances that bring the famous companions together for their journey. This movie starts out in a seaside town where the villagers are being harassed by a water demon who is threatening to eat anyone who goes into the water. Along comes mild-mannered, itinerant demon-hunter Xuan Zang to try to use his peaceful methods (he sings children’s songs at the demons) to subdue the monster. Luckily for the village, Miss Duan, another demon-hunter, is around to masterfully take out the demon by turning it into a little toy fish (one of the wonderful things about these kinds of movies is that they show the western world, used to D&D-style concepts of magic, the context of another kind of mythology). The movie is highly farcical, full of slapstick (groups of villagers try to flip the giant fish-demon caught on one side of a teetering plank onto land by jumping onto the other — bungling ensues); silly predicaments (in an ancient Chinese, magical take on Cyrano de Bergerac, one of Duan’s friends casts a spell to have her mirror her friend’s actions in an attempt to make the female hunter more alluring to Xuan Zang, but the spell parchment accidentally gets stuck to Xuan himself so he ends up prancing around like a girly girl); and plenty of loud, broad facial expressions. I am not sure where new prequel material ends and the original folktale begins, but one of the difficulties of this movie is that it has a lot of the absurdity that can be found in a lot of these folktales. The characters behave in irrational ways, and while the crazy, over-the-top fighting scenes are bizarre (one hunter has a super-tiny right foot about the size of a child’s hand, which grows magically gigantic — as in the size of a tree — when he needs to use it in battle), they are also silly fun. In order to enjoy these kinds of movies you really just have to go with the absurdity of it all. When Xuan finally meets up with the legendary Monkey King, there is really no hope of making sense of it all, but (similar to wondering why characters in Bollywood films spontaneously sing and dance) it’s all part of the genre and makes sense within that context. As much as I enjoy cinematic interpretations of myths and legends, I still think that most directors (including Chow here) try too hard to make the movie different from the story, applying their own style and stamp to the classic tales. Similar to Tarsem Singh’s The Immortals, Journey to the West ends up a bit too stylized to be fully enjoyed. (3.5 out of 5)

18 down, 32 to go.


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