If this picture alone doesn’t sell you, we’ll just never understand each other.
If the title of Journey to the West doesn’t ring a bell with western audiences, it may be because we’re more familiar with the 1942 abridged translation Monkey, which in turn spawned an amazingly good-bad ’70s TV series that was dubbed into English by the BBC with “oriental” accents so over the top they’d make a Neimodian blush. Nonetheless, if you know the legend of the Monkey King, you have some idea what to expect, though Stephen Chow’s movie version is a little different than most. In this one, the characters known to UK viewers of a certain age as Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy are all evil demons rather than heroes, and sought after by various demon hunters looking to make their fortune.
All the demon hunters but one, that is. Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) is a pacifist demon hunter, prone to fits of crying and determined to reform the demons he captures by singing nursery rhymes to them. Before he can achieve that with a giant tentacled fish-monster, however, a sexy female hunter named Miss Duan (Shu Qi) shows up to trap it in what looks like an ancient Pokeball, shake it till it becomes a stuffed toy, and instantly fall in love with Xuan, who rejects her advances on the grounds that he’s seeking a greater, more spiritual love.
What, are you saying to yourself that that doesn’t make much sense? Think of this version of the legend as the version a Chinese grandfather might read his sick grandkid, Princess Bride-style, leaving out all the boring bits and just sticking to parts where monsters fight. There’s not an actor in this movie, from the leads down to the extras, who doesn’t mug like crazy, and there’s not a moment onscreen that isn’t utterly ridiculous. That, however, was clearly the goal – if you’re not into seeing people’s faces cave in like rubber squeaky toys, or watching a hapless hero try to defeat a particularly ugly pig demon by making out with it, you’re in the wrong theater. Come to think of it, you may just have picked the wrong weekend to catch a movie – with 300: Rise of an Empire also opening, it’s a banner week for ancient texts turned into preposterous CGI-fests.
On paper, and probably in China, Journey to the West would seem the more family friendly option, but there are a few weird moments that cross the line, like a four year-old girl being eaten alive, or a demon’s victims burning in ovens who are then served as “pork” to guests, or the Monkey King tearing a man’s hair out by the bloody roots. Chow has a built-in response to this; in one scene, a character rigs a fake blood gusher around his own neck that is constantly spraying fountains of redness, which he chastises the hero for being stupid enough to have taken seriously at first. There’s also an extended gay panic gag, though it’s mitigated somewhat by one of the characters seemingly becoming bisexual in a subsequent scene.
Plot is almost non-existent, with no tedious backstory or set-up to worry about, as Xuan goes from battling a fish-creature to tracking a pig demon, which leads him into an elaborate scam by Duan, which then leads to the cave of the captured Monkey King (like Rita Repulsa, he’s been trapped for 500 years; like her monsters, he can grow), who initially is trapped in human form as a perverted old man. Throughout, there is constant slapstick, insanely physics-defying fighting, screwball humor, and even a musical number or two. Things get quite religious at the end, but in a way that is both ridiculous and still reverent – imagine a literalist Book of Revelation movie in which Jesus kicks some ass at the end, and you’re on a similar page.
Like everything else Chow has made – Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer should both come to mind – this is a live-action cartoon, though we should maybe put more quote-marks around “live-action” here than usual. The CG characters are a little off, but I suspect it’s deliberate, to make them look just a little unreal and/or magical. The ending sets up for a sequel that I suspect would require a slightly more orderly, reverential plot that I don’t know if Chow has in him to make. Like a big kid home alone, he has indulged in dessert first, and like fellow arrested development cases, we can high-five his choice to overrule the cinematic vegetables and get straight to the sweet, sweet sugar.
If you don’t want to do that, I hear they do still make grown-up movies, somewhere, sometimes. Could be just a rumor, though.