After a workhorse career in Chinese cinema throughout the nineties, comedian Stephen Chow broke through, to some extent, in the United States with the release of Shaolin Soccer and especially Kung Fu Hustle — projects he also wrote and directed, with his trademark mix of Jim Carrey-level cartoon energy and Quentin Tarantino-level cultural influences. In the years immediately following Kung Fu Hustle, though, Chow directed just one more movie, the odd E.T. riff CJ7.
Journey to the West, then, should herald Chow’s triumphant return — and it does, sort of. The film was a massive success in Chinese release last year, and now reaches American audiences eager for his next wacked-out epic. Stateside fans may be disappointed to learn that Chow himself does not appear in Journey to the West; he cedes the central role of Xuan Zhang, a Buddhist trying to become a demon-hunter and find enlightenment all at once, to Zhang Wen. Wen is more befuddled everyman than Chow-style goofball; the more antic bits of comic acting fall to Qi Shu as Miss Duan, a more experienced demon hunter who tries to take Zhang under her win, for reasons both related to demon-hunting training and romantic. Shu’s energy dominates the movie, acting-wise, whether kicking demon ass or surrendering control of her body movements to another for more seductive posing. She triumphs over a vaguely regressive role that has her mooning over Wen for no real reason — and him rejecting her advances for even less of a reason (nominally his search for enlightenment).
Though the movie has the busy, imaginative weirdness of anime, Journey to the West (which actually includes the subtitle Conquering the Demons, left out of its U.S. marketing materials) is actually an adaptation of a sixteenth century Chinese novel. It nonetheless feels like a live-action translation of a cartoon I’d never seen; the characters wander from location to location with vague goals (“whoever captures the pig demon first is the best”) that rob the movie of narrative momentum. Behind the camera, Chow is assuming either a familiarity with the source material or, more likely, a willingness to hang out waiting for him to unveil a set piece.
Granted, those set pieces, with rubbery and bizarre special effects, are often worth the wait. The movie starts off a bit like the Korean film The Host, with a water-borne demon menacing a village, though it becomes recognizably Chowian when the docks and bridges of the village move to and fro like giant see-saws. Later slapstick demon brawls, involving humanoid pigs and monkeys and the occasional infighting of Miss Duan’s team, recapture some of Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle magic.
But as with CJ7, sometimes the movie feels overwhelmed by its special effects — as if Chow reached an apex with Hustle and now struggles to employ enough bits and pixels to top it. It’s telling, I think, that some of the special-effect sequences occur with the main characters standing off to the side, rather than bouncing off each other. Journey to the West also turns surprisingly serious in its final stretch, setting up a series (it only covers a small portion of the original novel) that might well lack some of the film’s best elements. The movie is a lot of fun, but it ends with puzzlement, rather than the ecstatic high notes of Chow’s best work.