While it’s fun in spots and director Stephen Chow is bringing a great amount of his trademark ambition and imagination, Journey to the West is an ungainly and strangely distancing mess. For everything it does right in terms of delivering a silly, over the top fantasy epic it does just as much wrong. The lack of a coherent or intriguing story and characters only sinks it further.
In a fairytale kind of feudal land full of monsters, witchcraft, magic, and martial arts badassery there is a demon hunter named Tang (Zhang Wen). He’s a rookie that’s pretty bad at his job. After fighting a giant demon fish in the film’s overly long and positively exhausting Jaws aping first twenty minutes, he’s tasked with tracking down and killing an elusive and astoundingly dangerous shape-shifting pig demon that’s he’s dreadfully unqualified to chase after. On his quest to rid the land of evil and achieve enlightenment as a Buddha, he’s put into opposition with a potential love interest (played by Qi Shu) and veritable who’s who of demon hunters all trying to slay the same beast.
After thirty minutes I was exhausted, but invested in the visuals and Chow’s loving ability to reference a plethora of North American genre classics and oddities from Waterworld to After Hours to Motel Hell. He has always been a real “student of the game” and he’s worth sticking with most of the time. His last effort – the long delayed CJ7 – was undeniably batshit and pretty incoherent, but almost dazzlingly so. Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle are some of the best action comedies of their time. This is a film that I wanted to like.
Then after about an hour I stopped giving up any hope that I would ever care about what was going on. The main characters are dreadful constructions that aren’t worth following around. He’s a bland ineffective doofus. She’s a smug, bullying asshole written by people who clearly have no idea how to write a female character and make her as sexist as possible. Around them are a bunch of ancillary characters that have nothing whatsoever to do outside of being fodder for future set pieces. The quest is pretty simple: find some beasts and kill them. But Chow and his team of SEVEN (!!!) other writers can’t find any way to make the quest feel like anything more than an excuse to stage some occasionally badly rendered CGI action sequence. Once the film reaches its lengthy action climax (involving an imprisoned Smeagol-like monkey king) I wasn’t enthralled. I was counting the seconds until it was over.
It’s frustrating because a lot of what makes Chow such an interesting filmmaker still shines through in spots. The fact that his lead destroys demons through the use of recited nursery rhymes harkens back to his love of innocence and heroes free of guile. It’s a sweet touch, but it’s poorly integrated here and eventually just given up on almost entirely. His style hasn’t changed much, and that helps a lot. His set pieces still have just as many moving parts to inspire a sense of wonder and awe as to how he keeps it all together. It also might be his most beautifully shot film, with the opening sequence and a hotel banquet hall brawl possibly being among the best sequences he’s ever attempted.
What finally ends up killing Journey to the West, though, is the film’s underlying sense of cynicism. It’s not a very happy movie about derring-do and good triumphing over evil. It’s just a bunch of stuff happening without a sense of conviction in its own story. There are some interesting ideas that could have been put into play about finding your way in the world, but the tone of the dialogue and the sheer unlikable nature of the characters suggest that no one really cares what the ultimate outcome of the film will be. It’s eastern heart mixed with western cynicism, and unfortunately the pastiche artist in Chow decided to use more of the latter than the former.H