Made Overseas: Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons (2013)

Made Overseas is back for a special Lunar New Year engagement! Because who doesn’t like pigs? Demon hunters Shu Qi and Wen Zhang, that’s who.

The 16th Century novel Journey to the West seems to be the gift that gives on giving. It has to be the most adapted Chinese story ever, right? Most Westerners would be familiar with elements of the story thanks to Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. Perhaps you’ve caught Netflix’s The New Adventures of Monkey, a low budget Australian-New Zealand adaptation that ponders, “What if the characters weren’t necessarily Chinese?” China has adopted the story to film several times, which means at some point you may encounter a stately-looking Chow Yun Fat talking to a goofy Donnie Yen in monkey make-up.

Notable Hong Kong blockbuster director Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer, The Mermaid) has himself played Monkey in a 1995 two-part film called A Chinese Odyssey. The role must’ve left quite an impression on Mr. Chow as, almost 20 years later, he would direct his own Journey To The West adaptation with the subtitle that makes it sound somewhat like a substance abuse parable: “Conquering The Demons.”

As is the case with Stephen Chow movies, Journey To The West was a massive hit. According to Box Office Mojo, it was China’s box office champion of 2013, beating out such luminaries as Iron Man 3 (which had been released in Chinese cinemas with new scenes and came in second to this movie) and Pacific Rim (which actually did pretty well over there, perhaps because so much of it was set in China). Probably boosting its ticket sales was its release date: February 10, which was the day of 2013’s Lunar New Year.

Is Journey To The West an accurate retelling of the original tale? From what I gathere from my Wikipedia research, the answer is: “Not very.” My understanding is that the original story was a string of adventures where our principal characters find enlightenment. The movie comes off, rather, as a retelling of Ghostbusters but with different period-piece scenery. Using equipment reminiscent of the Ecto Containment Unit, Miss Duan (Shu Qi) carries around a bag that she uses to trap demons and contain them in little plushies. Tang (Wen Zhang) prefers more non-violent methods and attempts to calm the demons using a book of nursery rhymes. It should be no surprise that Miss Duan comes off as the far more competent of the two, rolling around the countryside with her own battlewagon and entourage of demon-fighting experts.

Like many of his movies, Chow marries gore and horror with Looney Tunes-inspired slapstick. This is perhaps best exemplified by a fellow demon hunter. He is an old man with a comically shriveled tiny foot. When he is pressed into battle, he sits on a cliff face… and a giant leg appears. Chow takes his time with this reveal. He first shows the circulatory system spreading into the shape of a two-story leg. And then… this fleshy giant leg with a fleshy giant foot at the end of it. The demon hunter, named Almighty Foot, then swings this giant leg around like it’s a club. He is defeated, of course, when the demon drills himself through the foot’s meaty arches.

That scene is played for laughs, like something lifted straight out of a Sam Raimi Evil Dead movie. When Chow wants to make you feel sick to your stomach, though, he’ll do that to. I had pulled up this movie to watch with the extended family last weekend. My sister-in-law had asked me if the movie was scary. She had given birth to her daughter four-months back, and she was very sensitive to scenes of child endangerment. (She was having a hard time making it through Bird Box, for example.) I told her that truthfully, the movie might be a little intense for her.

The opening scene is why.

There’s going to be some spoilers for the first fifteen minutes of the movie in the next couple of paragraphs, but it will give you an idea of what you’re in for.   Skip ahead to after the picture of the aforementioned fish monster if you are spoiler-phobic.

The movie opens in a remote village surrounded by mountains with a river running through its center. Everything is brightly lit, like we’re seeing an idyllic scene from a fairy tale. A father is splashing around in the water and entertaining his daughter, who is sitting on the pier nearby. He plays a sort of peek-a-boo, but goes too far when he pretends he’s drowning. The girl sobs uncontrollably. The dad laughs it off and tries to show the girl that he’s just playing around. He dives down and kicks his legs up. The girl stops crying eventually, and it eventually turns into laughter. The dad’s legs kick up again… but this time, a pool of red starts spreading from where his legs are. The girl still thinks this is a game, and she keeps laughing.

The dad has just been eaten by a fish demon. Some minutes later in the movie, the girl herself is put into danger.  Our hero, Tang, and the villagers try to get her to safety, but the demon is persistent.  Let this sink in: this family film, released on the biggest holiday in China, opens with a little girl getting murdered.

This shocking development is crucial to understanding the movie’s theme.  My wife became very upset, wondering why the family couldn’t have been spared when the demon reverts to a less-evil human form.  Why did the little girl have to die?  It’s because Chow wants to start us off at a point of pure evil.  There is not good reason why we would ever want this fish demon to ever be redeemed.  Tang looks like an absolute fool in his quest to flip these monsters to the side of good.  What did they ever do?  Let them die!

But then again… the road to enlightenment… and reaching an exalted spiritual state that had previously seemed impossible… that’s exactly what the original text of Journey To The West was about, wasn’t it?  The vicious, violent cycle can be stopped.

This is a Stephen Chow film, though, and he doesn’t let you dwell on the somber gravity of the moment.  Tang must navigate a trellis that has become a Rube Goldberg machine.  Multiple villagers do acrobatic backflips as they try to defeat the monster.  And as the monster is propelled through the air, he lands on a monk who leaves a cartoonish human-shaped hole as he is crushed through the pier.

Shu Qi plays Miss Duan as an incredibly thirsty demon hunter who goes through great lengths to try to get the very resistant Tang in bed.  She acts like the crazy girl in a Japanese harem anime, which could be really annoying if Shu wasn’t so good at physical comedy.  By the way, I was shocked to find out that she was 36 when she did this movie, as she came across easily as someone who was more than ten years younger than that.  Part of that, I suppose, was how big Shu was acting.  She magnified every emotion… in a good way.

Miss Duan and Tang team up to fight the next demon (Bingquiang Chen), a creature who takes on the form of either a human-sized porcelain doll or a gross oily skinned pig-faced creature.  If the fish monster episode was inspired by Jaws, this segment of the movie is closer to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Candles hide sharp blades, humans are cooked in pig carcasses, and the villain is wearing a creepy mask with a permanently soulless expression.  A lot of Chinese and Hong Kong filmmakers seem to want to follow in Stephen Chow’s footsteps — including Tsui Hark, who directed this movie’s sequel — but few seem willing to take the same radical tonal leaps.

They eventually make their way to the movie’s star attraction, The Monkey King Sun Wukong (Bo Huang), which is approximately where the move seems to have run out of its special effects budget.  Now, this may have all been done on purpose.  This is the most cartoony portion of the movie, with a fellow demon hunter surrounded by animal forms, The Monkey King pulling a page out of Dragon Ball Z and turning into a hulking King Kong creature, and the aforementioned gross-as-hell superpower of The Almighty Foot.  And yet the background is featureless and unremarkable, and the actors always look like they’re on a green screen.  You never forget that everything was digitally composited, and poorly done at that.  There’s  scene were plants catch on fire… and not only do the plants look fake, the fire looks like an add-on feature from a cheap cellphone app.

Compare that to the opening scene with the fish demon, and it’s a stark comparison.  Seriously, look at the screenshot before the paragraph (and compare it to the one right after).  That scene feels weighty and visceral.  It’s a mix of practical effects with a giant CGI fish creature.  When you see people jump, you see them take flying leap off of a wooden platform and do some incredible aerial wire-work stunts.  It doesn’t resemble cheap Flash animation… which the climactic scene sometimes does.

There is some great visual imagery, such as when Tang summons the Buddha Hand.  Why does that sound so familiar you ask?  A hero summoning a Buddha Hand?  Maybe it’s because we saw something like that in Kung Fu Hustle already?  Parts of this movie do feel like Chow was dusting off rejected Kung Fu Hustle plot developments.  Seeing Buddha’s face appear above the curvature of the Earth is awesome, though… as is the shot when he brings his hand down.  It’s slow, deliberate, and grandiose.  As his hand approaches Earth, it becomes so large and mighty that it fills the entire screen.  And not only that… it become so large that we are in the lines of the hand, and then to the point where we make out individual cells.  A triumph of theme over realism, perhaps.

This movie is a lesser Stephen Chow work, firmly in the “Stephen Chow is responsible for the continued employment of the Chinese entertainment industry” phase in his career. But unlike a lot of blockbuster filmmakers, it still brims with his quirky personality and anarchic humor, undimmed by the instincts to produce something that will make everybody happy. Can you imagine if Joe Dante was the biggest name in Hollywood? That’s what happened in China.

It’s got so much going for it that it justifies why I have a copy of this movie on Blu-Ray.  The design of the creatures are highly imaginative.  Individual segments are fun and memorable, like the ones featuring the fish monster and the pig demon.  The world-building makes you want to find out more about the minor characters; what is up with Prince Important (Show Low) and why does he look like he’s dying of tuberculosis?  And Shu Qi really is quite a magnetic presence.  It’s hard to take your eyes off her any time she’s on screen, and it seems like she’s having the time of her life hamming it up.  It’s a shame she’s not been in more Stephen Chow movies.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons is currently available for streaming on Hulu.