Stephen Chow returns to the director’s chair for the first time in seven years to create a prequel to the oft-filmed and always beloved Chinese classic novel, Journey to the West. Chow is probably best known outside of the China-zone for Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Sholin Soccer (2001), but he has had a long career portraying comedic heroes. After Kung Fu Hustle, he surprisingly went relatively quiet, with only 2008’s CJ7 on the docket as a starring vehicle. I was pleased to find out that he was back, although he doesn’t make an appearance in the film. Last years Journey to the West is apparently the all time box office record holder for a Chinese language film, and I probably would have sought out the movie because of that. However, Kung Fu Hustle established Chow as a comedic director worth watching and I was curious to see if he would showcase those skills again and if he’d spent that time off extending himself.
I can’t say that I found Journey to the West disappointing. It feels awfully familiar. Chow has recast the classic as a Stephen Chow movie with many of the sight gags we’ve seen in other films. Many of the basic plot elements from Kung Fu Hustle are present as well. The hero, Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) is a generally incompetent fighter who has placed himself in a career where fighting is expected. There is a sequence of battles against ever more challenging villains climaxing with a final battle in which our hero undergoes a spiritual transformation that enables him to finally defeat someone in battle. For those who have watched the 2004 film, the Buddha’s Palm makes an appearance again. There’s also plenty of sight gags, furiously snappy banter and plenty of ridiculous characters possessed of a single talent that may or may not prove useful in battle. The most memorable example of the One-Power-Hero in this one is Almighty Foot, a demon hunter with one very large foot. It is a romp through medieval China for a demon hunter who will eventually be tapped to go to India.
Where the movie falls short of Kung Fu Hustle (beyond the absence of Mr. Chow himself – come back soon!) is the integration and development of the special effects. Kung Fu Hustle incorporated the CGI technology of the time to overcome the limitations of human bodies in order to exaggerate motion in ways that we associate with cartoon animation. The actors weren’t overcoming physics, per se, but had developed the bodies necessary to operate in the world of animated physics. It wasn’t necessarily seamless in execution, but it was inventive and fresh, and Chow paid enough attention to details to flesh out these effects and give them volume and mass. Who can forget Qiu Yuen’s torso contorting to produce a Lion’s Roar or Yuen Wah fighting without apparent need for bones or tendons?
By contrast, the special effects in Journey of the West seem less effective. Sure they are in 3-D, but they also appear to be less inventive and part of the film as a whole. This is especially true of the animated sequences involving the Monkey King and Piggy, in which the animators appear to provide the demons size, but not mass, volume or effects on the environment appropriate for that size. They appear to be painted into animated landscapes and not part of the same scenery that the actors inhabit.
It’s a minor complaint, and not one that would cause me to dissuade anyone from watching Journey. No one who watched Chow in Pandora’s Box came away wishing the effects were better. They watched because Chow truly is a funny physical actor, bordering on amazing in the types humor he can pull off. Journey to the West is still a very enjoyable film. Chow is planning to make a series of films based on the novel, and since the pre-quel was a success, I expect to see Sanzang along with Monkey, Piggy and Sandy in several more movies together now that the latter have all been collected. I recommend getting in before you fall too far behind.
***1/2 of 5
IMDB: Journey to the Wet