Very strange (which I like) but not nearly as funny as I’d hoped.
Perhaps the funniest and best Chinese movie I have seen is Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. The film is thoroughly weird but also a laugh riot from start to finish. I also liked his Kung Fu Hustle. So, when I was offered a chance to see his film, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons I was excited … very excited. Sadly, while it is quite weird (which I appreciate), I was surprised that it just wasn’t consistently funny. Still, even a disappointing film by Chow is worth a look.
To fully appreciate the film, it would help if you have some familiarity with Chinese classical literature. In this film, one of the main characters is the Monkey King (also known as Sun Wukong)—one of the characters in the super-famous Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West.’ Much of the way he’s portrayed in the film is actually based on this story … strange as it might seem! He has amazing magical powers and strength and was imprisoned for 500 years due to his hubris for challenging the gods.
However, although I mentioned the Monkey King, the main character in this story is a very well meaning but totally inept demon hunter, Tang Sanzang. Again and again, Tang takes on demons—only to have his butt whipped and he always ends up getting rescued by Miss Duan—a real and amazingly talented demon hunter! Inexplicably, Miss Duan is infatuated with Tang—even though he pretty much looks like a hobo and doesn’t reciprocate this love. Tang is like a monk in his devotion to his art and shuns all romance and affection. Eventually, however, the pair end up facing the formidable Monkey King—and their relationship is seriously tested and the pair are brought together.
The film really excels when it comes to its production values. Clearly, the Chinese can equal the best stuff coming from Hollywood with this film. It features stunning CGI, gorgeous music and simply looks breathtaking. Because of this, it is worth seeing just to see scenes such as the final epic battle between the Buddha and the Monkey King! As far as the weirdness goes, this film truly is strange. I would talk specifically about some of the weird demons Tang meets but I really think it’s better to see them yourself! You WILL be amazed and some are absolutely insanely designed. But, unfortunately, unlike Shaolin Soccer, the film often drops the ball when it comes to combining this weirdness with laughs. Again and again, I found myself amazed but rarely amused. Now this isn’t to say it’s a bad film overall. But, compared to the best of Chow’s work, it is a letdown. Oh, and if you are wondering, unlike these other two films I mentioned, Stephen Chow is not in this movie—he just directed, co-wrote and co-produced it … but that sure sounds like enough!
This film is available from Netflix.
Review by Lead Entertainment Writer & Film Critic, Martin HaferShare: