Saturday, February 16, 2013

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (大話西遊之三藏付魔 / Da Hua Xi You Zhi San )

I'm Supposed to What?

The Journey to the West story has been told countless of times in various mediums, and for film, there could only be a capture of a segment reasonable enough for a 90 minute film thereabout, and one that usually involves the Monkey King and an assortment of demons and spirits to deal with. Stephen Chow himself was involved in what would be two of his best comedies in A Chinese Odyssey, where he co-directed and starred as the Monkey King, turning in a rather touching story that had a strong romantic core, and provided a real spin off and unique vision to the well known stories contained within the Chinese classic. So what else does Chow has up his sleeve this time round?

Truth be told, I wasn't quite impressed with the idea that Stephen Chow had to revisit one of his greatest films, and do another version of it. But Chow had proven me wrong, and had some nifty creative ideas behind what he had wanted to do with another Journey to the West tale, hardly rehashing the earlier Jeff Lau effort. He had managed to keep the strengths of what he is well known for in irreverent comedy, and crafted his best in years, while coming up with yet another new spin to keep things engaging even for the most jaded amongst us on the tale of Monkey King. The trailer, while keeping things really short, now on hindsight was a brilliant little piece of a short prologue, while teasing the audience on a Monkey King appearance that's never been portrayed nor seen before in this form, which does take some getting used to.

But this film, co-directed with Derek Kwok, sets its sights on Tripitaka the monk, or Xuan Zang, instead, before he got preordained into monk-hood. In this re-telling, Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) is a novice demon-hunter, and a hopeless one at that. He believes that every demon should be shown compassion, and is for non-violence as much as possible, in order to rehabilitate demons that he found, using his book of nursery rhymes which his master claims to be one of the best sutras around for subduing of spirits. Xuan Zang embodies all that is benevolent, consistent in spirit (pardon the pun) what you know of the character, except that he has that thick mop of hair. But despite his lack of skills other than a stout heart, help comes in the form of Ms Duan (Shu Qi), the expertly skilled demon hunter, with her own posse to allow some cameo appearances, who has the hots for Xuan Zang (again playing to the tune that he is someone desirable, as any Journey story goes), and pops up almost always at the right time to save his hide.

Elements from Journey stories include the individual encounters with all his disciples and their tweaked back stories, which credit has to be given to the screenwriters for improvements that worked within the confines of this alternate story they wanted to tell. The highlight is of course how Xuan Zang's first meeting with Sun Wukong (Huang Bo) went, which is as comical and witty as can be, which extended to the big battle finale that had as much heart, a key winning element from Chow's A Chinese Odyssey films, to move when themed against the notion of sacrifice. The final twenty minutes was a fitting climax, building up upon a series of very smart episodes, which included, on a higher level, how scriptures are based on love.

And this romance between Xuan Zang and Ms Duan forms the crux of the story, like in A Chinese Odyssey, that drives the narrative forward. Shu Qi plays the much tomboyish demon hunter with aplomb, who has to dig deep to find her femininity in wooing Xuan Zang, and who would have guessed she looked so comfortable and credible in executing many of her martial arts scenes. Wen Zhang like others before him who have played the kind monk, was right at home with his performance, a little bumbling mixed with that tinge of innocence, and sheer determination in wanting to do good despite only having the best of intentions, and none of the skills. And amongst the other characters, all eyes are perhaps on Huang Bo's rendition of the Monkey King, which I can only say it's extremely different to begin with, and I'm sure some find the character design a little bit bewildering.

Then again, it's a retelling, so some decisions made may not sit well with others, but I thought it was a breath of fresh air, especially since it's probably the first time (in a long while maybe) that it took the stance of all the disciples being enemy combatants and demons. I can't rave enough about the finale that dealt with how the Monkey King got that golden headband of his, as it touches on the virtues of love and forgiveness all in one fell swoop, conspicuously making the deities of Journey missing and unnecessary in this story.

Chow as a director has somehow imparted his acting techniques from the many demeanours he had portrayed in the past, to probably each and every character here, so much so that everyone has shades of Chow's easily recognizable persona, especially when dealing with comic timing, and style. And like his recent lavish productions, this one is no different, which is full of CG effects, but polished and more of a tool to tell the story rather than drawing attention to themselves. But that doesn't mean that Chow has lost touch with his more humble beginnings, at times opting for practical gags that had served him well in the past, and low brow humour still ever-reliable in eliciting laughter.

Given a subtitle in this film, one can only hope there's a follow up of sorts, because the baseline has been set, the origins told, and what lies ahead are the countless of episodes in the troupe's perilous journey westwards to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures, which anyone could be taken and given a new narrative spin in similar treatment as this one. Stephen Chow once again showed that he still has that creative flair and streak within him, that even if he doesn't appear in front of the camera, he has what he takes behind it to deliver the best of his heydays. One of the best films out of this Lunar New Year season!

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