JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS covers familiar ground for those with knowledge of Chinese folklore. But I bet none of the film adaptations thus far have ever told this story like Stephen Chow has. Full of whiz-bang special effects, amazing set pieces, and a metric ton of heart, JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS, like KUNG FU HUSTLE and SHAOLIN SOCCER, feels like it barely be contained in the confines of a movie.
Stephen Chow does something extraordinary with in other hands would be simple popcorn fare: there's a fierce, almost rebellious streak of spirituality to JOURNEY TO THE WEST, and it's unapologetic about where its heart lies. There's something beautiful about it; Chow's movies have always been earnest, but JOURNEY TO THE WEST has no shame in where it stands. Plus, according to the movie, Buddhism grants superpowers to its purest followers, and that seems like something worth attaining.
Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) travels the lands as a demon hunter. But unlike most demon hunters, he's mostly a failure at it; instead of destroying the demons outright, Xuan reads from a book of nursery rhymes and tries to make the demon come to peace with whatever brought it to such a state. Miss Duan, on the other hand, uses her fighting skills and force to bring demons low. When a demon fish attacks a lakeside community, Xuan tries his best to calm the fierce creature, but it's Miss Duan who wins the day.
Dejected, Xuan wanders the countryside, but he can't seem to shake loose of Miss Duan. When a pig demon terrorizes the countryside, fighting all attempts by Xuan, Duan, and other monks to subdue it, Xuan is advised by his master to ask the Monkey King (Bo Huang) to help. But the Monkey King is a trickster, and always tries to manipulate things to his own ends. As Xuan's feelings for Duan grow, so do his responsibilities and the risks of failure. The Monkey King will stop at nothing to be free, and if free he could terrorize the world.
Yes, as in other recent Chow fare, the special effects are abundant. The effects work is more along the lines of KUNG FU HUSTLE - cartoony and sometimes the work looks a bit dodgy. But it also works in context. JOURNEY TO THE WEST has the kinetic action that is a Chow staple, but he also shows real empathy for his characters, even the villains. the demons all had tragedy in their lives that brought them to their monstrous state, and while Duan's methods work, it's Xuan who sees their true nature and tries to find the more peaceful path.
It wouldn't be a Chow movie without surreal, imaginative imagery - from a monk called Almighty Foot with a giant leg to stomp his enemies, to Duan's use of her magical ring, to the insane, wonderful finale. But they all serve a more spiritual purpose - like KUNG FU HUSTLE, JOURNEY TO THE WEST explores Buddhism in a brisk way that still respects the belief system. That's not to say JOURNEY TO THE WEST is a somber affair; it's incredibly fun and full of Chow's brilliant use of CGI and imagery. Some of the effects are obvious, but for me Chow's vision has always seemed to clash with the tech, and I'd much rather have less-than-perfect CGI than a restrained Chow.
As far as ranking his films, JOURNEY TO THE WEST may well be my favorite. Beautifully done, entertaining as hell, and spiritually assured, Chow has made a work that feels personal yet isn't so full of itself that it doesn't take the audience for a ride. Grand entertainment.