A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008’s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.
Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.
Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.
For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.
But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.