Journey to the West
Runs Fri., March 28–Thurs., April 3 at Grand Illusion. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.
If you were a bored 10-year-old sitting in Asian history class, this is exactly the kind of movie you’d want your hungover teacher to screen instead of giving a lecture. Stephen Chow’s silly mythological romp is another fusion of martial arts, slapstick comedy, and computer effects; it’s broad entertainment aimed at the mainstream Chinese market, like his Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) is a freelance demon hunter, one of several who compete like hired guns in the Old West (or wandering ronin in Old Japan; take your pick). While other demon hunters employ magic, explosives, flying swords, kung fu, and a giant foot to destroy their foes, Xuan Zang uses only a book of Buddhist nursery rhymes to placate and redeem these tortured, angry souls who’ve turned into monsters. For this nice-guy approach he’s roundly mocked.
However, the vying Buddhist philosophies don’t occupy much screen time. Chow stages the first battle with a Water Demon in a rickety fishing village, heaped high on stilts, that soon becomes a teetering wreck of ramps, chutes, pulleys, and rope swings, like Xbox made of bamboo; Xuan Zang races around like a silent-movie clown, with a hairstyle seemingly inspired by The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob. The Pig Demon occupies a haunted inn with a horrifying culinary delicacy; there Xuan Zang gets thoroughly schooled by sexy rival demon hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi of Three Times and The Transporter), who flings golden rings around like throwing stars. Her real agenda is to place a ring on Xuan Zang’s finger; why she falls for this clown is a bit of a mystery, but it results in a funny fake kidnapping.
In far-western China, all the demon hunters converge to face the Monkey King (the sly, amusing Huang Bo), who’s endured a very Gollum-like 500 years of captivity. If Marvel has its Avengers, this is where Chow’s prequel sets up a gang of enlightened superheroes to rid China of more demons. After seeing Journey to the West, I won’t miss the Water and Pig Demons, but I will retain a soft spot for the scheming, indignant Monkey King. When Xuan Zang tries to placate him with kindness, he essentially responds, “Five hundred freaking years in solitary confinement, and you offer me a banana?” He’s got good reason to be pissed.