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After the lame CJ7, Stephen Chow finally bounces back as a comic writer-director.
Ancient China. Young Buddhist monk Chen Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) arrives in a fishing village where a man has been eaten by something in the water. A fake Taoist priest (Steven Fung) kills a giant stingray and declares the water is now safe; Xuanzang disagrees and is strung up by the villagers. However, when a giant Fish Demon appears and eats first the dead man's young daughter, Changsheng (Candy Zhang), and then her mother, Xuanzang helps the villagers to conquer it. After the fish morphs into a young man (Lee Sheung-ching), Xuanzang's powers prove insufficient to exorcise it; it is demon hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi) who finally eradicates the evil spirit.
Depressed, Xuanzang tells his master (Cheng Sihan) that his book of song mantras, 300 Nursery Rhymes, is useless; the master says the fault is not the book, which is designed to bring out the goodness in beings, but Xuanzang's still-incomplete faith. Some time later, at Gao Family Inn, famous for its delicious roast pork, Xuanzang finds himself facing hordes of demons; he's again saved by Miss Duan, who uses her magical Infinite Flying Ring. However, the cook, Master of Meat, who is actually Pig Demon Zhu Ganglie (Chen Bingqiang), escapes.
Duan asks Xuanzang to kiss her in thanks, but he runs off, scared. In order to gain true "buddhahood", Xuanzang sets out to find Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, on Five Fingers Mountain. En route, he again bumps into Miss Duan, who is with a group of goblins; she tells Xuanzang she's chosen him to be her husband, which again terrifies him. More demon-hunters, including Monk Sandy (Lee Sheung-ching), Almighty Foot (Zhang Chaoli) and the epicene Prince Important (Show Lo), arrive and help to ward off another attack by Zhu Ganglie.
After the group fails to agree on joining forces to defeat Zhu Ganglie once and for all, Xuanzang continues alone on his journey to Five Fingers Mountain. There, Sun Wukong (Huang Bo) turns out to be very different from what Xuanzang expected.
Five years after the vacuous, over-cute CJ7 (2008), Stephen CHOW returns revitalised with his eighth film as a writer-director, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The first in which Chow doesn't also appear as an actor, it nonetheless has a 100% feel of one of his productions — from the inventive way in which gags are developed, through the sympathetic handling of actors, to its ingenuously optimistic view of humanity. In fact, the absence of Chow on screen even benefits the movie's creativity, by throwing the spotlight full on his cast and not being able to fall back on his well-patented mannerisms.
Though it only becomes crystal clear at the end, the film is essentially a prequel to A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora's Box (1995) and A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (1995), in which Chow starred as Monkey King under Jeff LAU's manic direction. In tone, however, it's very different — much less full of Chinese Buddhist mythological references, characterised more on a human level (and therefore more accessible to a wider audience) and not at all repetitious. Though visual effects are used throughout, they don't dominate the film in the same way as in Odyssey, functioning more as decoration to the action and comedy rather than becoming the movie's sine qua non. Only in the last 20 minutes does the CGI really take over, supplying a suitably spectacular finale prior to the simple ending. Throughout, 3-D is used in the same way.
Journey also marks a return by Chow to his simple, humanistic approach towards comedy, which was a feature of his '90s films but became progressively lost in more ambitious later works like Kung Fu Hustle (2004) (with all its retro references) and CJ7 (with its soppy emotionalism). The opening 20 minutes, set in a village terrorised by a giant Fish Demon, is a wonderfully contained setpiece which rapidly sketches memorable characters and then organically develops action sequences in a classic Hong Kong way, exploiting existing props and sets. After the character of the naive young monk Xuanzang (aka Tripitaka) has been established, and his co-lead, demon hunter Miss Duan, is also introduced in brief but striking fashion, the movie is ready to set out on its journey — to conquer the evil Pig Demon with a little help from the sly Monkey King on the way.
The space that Chow finds for his actors inbetween the visual effects is eagerly taken up by the cast, not least by top-billed actress SHU Qi, simply terrific here as a fearless demon hunter who can beat up bad spirits with the best of them. As Xuanzang, WEN Zhang (Ocean Heaven (2010), Love Is Not Blind (2011)) can't help but be overshadowed in a role that's largely vanilla by comparison, though he makes the most of scenes in which Shu Qi's demon hunter panics him with her sexual aggressiveness. Until the appearance, an hour or so in, of goofy comedian HUANG Bo as a very human-looking Monkey King, Shu Qi doesn't have much competition; Huang takes over for a while, in a beautifully observed, crafty performance, before Shu Qi also turns up again for the finale. Chow's confidence in his actors is visible in him just letting the camera run in several dialogue scenes, without any cut-aways or other editing.
Elsewhere, there are some lovely comic ideas, such as a self-important, epicene prince (played by Taiwan singer-dancer Show LO) and his retinue of not-so-young "beauties"; a band of goblins, including one whose neck won't stop spurting blood and a spunky young woman (barely recognisable as Hong Kong pseudo-model Chrissie CHAU); plus Steven FUNG's fake Taoist priest in the opening sequence. Throughout, the Greater China cast (dominated by Mainlanders) melds smoothly, and though the script (credited to eight writers) is blocky in terms of construction — basically with four distinct acts — the on-screen chemistry between the actors carries it smoothly through at an emotional level. Music, in the form of both songs and soundtrack scoring, is prominent throughout, with Raymond WONG Ying-wah's light soundtrack, partly jaunty, partly recalling a sub-Morricone Italian sound of the '70s, a big help in sustaining mood.
Like Chow's first four films as writer-director, Journey also has an "associate director", in this case Derek KWOK, best known for co-directing retro martial-arts comedy Gallants (2010) with Clement CHENG. Kwok's contribution is invisible on any stylistic level.
|1. Seeking Mr. Right|
2. Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters
3. Ip Man: Final Fight
4. Journey to the West
5. An End to Killing