By Dino-Ray Ramos
Mainstream movie-going audiences’ knowledge of “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” is most likely very minimal. More than that, the general public’s (and my own) knowledge about the legendary and epic Chinese novel on which it is based doesn’t go beyond the information that can be found on its Wikipedia page—which, by the way, is very thorough and quite informative. That being said, for directors Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok to tackle such a text is ambitious but makes sense at the same time. With his distinct style, Chow, with the help of Kwok, is probably the only director that can bridge the gap of an age old tale with modern, action-comedy storytelling that can captivate today’s Twitter-addled audience who hungers for cinematic eye candy every five minutes.
The origins of “Journey to the West” come from the 16th century and was published during the Ming Dynasty. Chinese audiences are wildly familiar with the classic tale and its many adaptations. Needless to say, it is a classic piece of literature that some people may consider sacred. The story follows Xuan Zang, a monk on a journey—and that’s pretty much where we can stop on the comparisons between the source material and the movie. The book and film should be approached as two different entities—as all book-to-movie adaptations should be approached. But if you want a thorough explanation of the ancient story you can always read the book. (There’s also the Wikipedia page waiting for your eyes).
Chow (who is also a well-known actor) continues to evolve his distinct genre he has created with his previous films “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” He takes ordinary folktales and flips them on their heads, turning them into storybook spectacles with outrageous special effects, large doses of humor, and innovative filming styles. All the while he always manages to keep the story grounded. With “Journey to the West,” he follows Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen), a clumsy demon hunter monk who stumbles upon a village to help them defeat a demon terrorizing fish demon—with the help of the more experienced badass demon hunter Miss Duan (Qi Shu). The odd couple team up and go on a journey to defeat two more demons, the last being the big boss: the almighty shape-shifting Monkey King (Bo Huang). The result is a mix of action, humor, sincerity, love, and zaniness that only Stephen Chow can pull off.
“Journey to the West” is another take on Joseph Campbell‘s classic mythology of the hero’s journey, which has been injected into pop culture via films like “Star Wars”, “Wizard of Oz”, and “Harry Potter”. The journey in very, very generic terms goes as such: a hero (in this case, Xuan) leaves familiarity to go on an adventure into that unknown that introduces him to challenges and people. He eventually returns to the familiar, but more enlightened. Xuan follows this “Iliad”-like journey, but with the distinct directing eye of Chow, he helps tell this story the only way it should be told: with a wild slant of fantasy. The movie could have easily been directed by someone else and turned out to be a very serious, run-of-the-mill hero’s journey. Lucky for us, Chow got his creative hands on it and injected his signature mix of cartoony visuals, kinetic video game action sequences, and a healthy amount of sentiment.
Chow has the tendency to add an unorthodox dimension to a story without distraction or compromising its integrity. He did it well by mixing soccer and martial arts in “Shaolin Soccer”. He also went really out of the box with “Kung Fu Hustle” that pits an unlikely landlord and landlady with the superpowers against an “Axe Gang” in ’40s Shangai. All sound like ridiculous ideas, but Chow makes it work every time—and “Journey to the West” isn’t any different.
Sure, the story of “Journey to the West” is time-honored, but how else would you present a story about a goofy demon hunter monk on a mission to fight a man-eating fish, a shape-shifting monkey, and a pig demon? Through unapologetic exaggerated visuals and fantastical action, Chow perfectly packages this epic tale into a spectacle for the big scree— complete with heart and his trademark comical absurdity.
“Journey to the West: Conquering Demons” opened in U.S. Theaters in March and is now available to view on Comcast On Demand during the month of April.
Dino-Ray Ramos is guest blogger from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.