There’s not a lot about Steven Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons that works on paper. It’s a goofy series of lengthy set-pieces stapled together into one rambling movie. it’s filled with questionable computer generated effects and unnecessary bouts of martial arts. One of the main sub-plots is an overly-typical romance played for comedic effect and than violently played for dramatic effect. There are fat suits and demons and cartoonish feet and attempts at actual emotion all scrambled together into one movie. Of course it all ends up working so well it’s legitimately kind of ridiculous.
The movie really is a strangely structured series of slightly disconnected mini-movies. The opening set piece sort of establishes this right away, while also cleverly introducing us to the story’s key players. There’s a giant demon fish, a fake-out main character, and singing, all mashed together with Looney Tunes flavoured slapstick. We see a village get attacked by some mysterious and threatening underwater demon. A cocky monk shows up chanting and tossing bombs around, killing a fierce sting ray. The riverside town celebrates as a beggar-looking man appears, shouting about the ray not being the demon and telling the town they’re still in danger. No one heeds his warning, and the monk turns the town against him to the point where he’s tied up dangling above the river. This is, naturally, when the demon fish appears. There’s a lot of slapstick after this, including a makeshift teeter-totter scene that uses a woman in a fat-suit as a frustratingly effective punchline. After sort of killing the demon fish he’s transformed (at least physically) back into a man. The ragged demon hunter (Zhang Wen) sits across from him and procures a book of lullabies. He, in one of my favourite beats in the whole movie, starts making unceasing eye-contact with the seated demon, singing intently. It seems to have no effect. Suddenly a braggadocious female demon hunter (Qi Shu) shows up and traps the demon in a tiny bag. She introduces herself as Miss Duan to the ragged Xuan Zang. She can’t believe Zang is a real demon hunter, scoffing in his face when he explains his method. He’s been taught to stick to a path of nonviolence. So Zang uses lullabies to remind demons they were once human, hopefully prompting them to give up their monstrous ways. It has never worked.
This scene not only introduces the two most important characters, it also introduces the film’s terrible special effects. From bad compositing to terrible green-screen to terrible colour correction to terrible CG monsters, this movie has it all. It’s initially jarring, especially that are some cool and impressive practical effects. The demons all look, at best, like video game effects. There are some seriously terribly assembled computer based shots (really, there couldn’t have been a real person in the foreground of that shot). When we see the Monkey King eventually he’s almost black and white, until his limbs past outside of the sloppily made clipping mask confining the colour adjustment. The movie is such a live-action cartoon that it never quite breaks any of the important scenes, and some of the climactic fight actually looks alright, but in general the digital effects are definitely the film’s biggest shortcoming.
The next big scene takes place in a spooky demonic inn built into the side of a cliff. The owner of the inn is a shiny-face handsome man who appears to be killing his costumers. Xuan Zang and Miss Duan show up independently of one another, fighting the demon. Or rather Duan fights the demon and eventually calls on Duan to suck the demon’s energy from his slobbering mouth. His face having at some point during the fight transformed into Porco Rosso’s evil cousin. The demon escapes and the two demon hunter part ways.
Xuan Zang tracks the porcine demon through a bamboo forest when he’s abducting by bandits. Bandits that also recently abducted Miss Duan. This is quite possibly the film’s longest segment, although there’s an argument to be made that it’s actually three or four segments taking place in quick succession in the same place. The scene slides from panicked kidnapping to relationship based body-switching slapstick to a chase to a fight. The last portion of this sequence introduces three new characters – the top three demon hunters in china. They’re quite a hilarious cast of misfits. The lesser of the three is a muscular martial arts master who seems to conjure ghostly animals that correspond with his styles of martial arts. The next strongest is an older, bearded man with a cane and one wizened leg. This leg transforms into a colossally huge limb during fights. The most powerful of the lot is a sickly dandy who’s perpetually carted around on a pillowed seat by a sarcastic group of old ladies. They argue amongst themselves and generally fail to take down the pig demon.
This prompts Xuan Zang to seek out aid – the Monkey King of myth (hence the title). The Monkey King, according to myth, was a monkey who gained supernatural powers through taoism, but eventually rebelled against heaven and was imprisoned by Buddha. This all comes from the Chinese novel Journey to the West. His mythical powers include strength, speed, and transformation. Xuan Zang visits him in the hope of learning the secrets he needs to stop the rampaging demon. Miss Duan shows up again during this part, and hangs around until the dramatic finale. I sort of don’t want to spoil the way these last two acts unfold, but suffice it to say we get relationship comedy, a sad moment, then a final fight played almost completely straight.
Other then all the demon hunting the movie is based around the relationship between Miss Duan and Xuan Zang. Miss Duan, by the end of their second meeting, starts to fall for Zang. After that she pretty much pursues him, or orchestrates or goes along with half-baked schemes to win Zang over. Xuan is clearly on some level interested in Duan, but the movie adds in a surprisingly engaging wrinkle to this burgeoning romance. Xuan Zang is doing his best to live by the same tenets as Buddha, and hopes to work towards if not enlightenment that at least powerful spiritual betterment. This means he refuses to show any surface interest in Duan. This concept sort of helps elevate this particular subplot in Journey to the West. It means it never has to manufacture any sitcom style will-they-won’t they tension, instead actually following Xuan Zang’s goals through to their logical conclusion. It’s not a passing plot contrivance, but rather the whole point of the film.
This gives the movie a lot of heart and really adds in a level of thematics I didn’t initially expect from the film. Given that this relationship plot thread quickly leads into scenes where Zang writhes around being remote controlled by Duan’s sister, accidentally angering a couple of threatening demon hunters. Instead as the movie goes along this jokey relationship becomes something not only engaging but eventually something with real pathos and thematic significance. This movie really makes use of that tonal switch you can sometimes get away with in comedies. While lots of comedies completely misuse this technique, sliding from comedy to faux-drama for no real reason, Journey to the West does this with great skill. The film starts with a strong funny scene, and slowly adds in more and more moments of drama until eventually you’re completely emotionally involved in a fight scene that involves an old man perched on top of a building sized foot.
At the risk of generalization there’s a real difference between Asian and North American cinema in this respect. Asian films are more willing to experiment with tonal changes (just look at something like The Host), and in some cases this leads to a vastly superior understanding of the technique. Although Journey to the West actually utilizes a pretty graceful and transitional technique. It doesn’t screech into a tonal change. (Which is, again, more common in American comedies. Think of all the comedies you’ve seen with eye-roll-inducing serious climaxes.) This movie handles the change in tone a lot more like, say, The World’s End. The serious stuff is built right into the film’s tissue, so when Steven Chow finally points a microscope at it the effect is completely expected, at least on some level.
This thematic through-line is exactly what lets this strangely structured film never quite feel like the disparate collection of scenes it is. The way the thematic elements heighten goes a long way towards helping this too. Scenes that might not feel like dramatic or plot-based extensions of one another feel like they’re exploring the same ideas with increasing focus. It gets extra points for being a compelling and interesting theme. It doesn’t ever quite unfold like you’d expect, and that’s something to be praised.