Extremism has always been Stephen Chow’s game: a confusingly apocalyptic amalgam of gut-wrenching laughter, equally gut-wrenching violence, and feel-good storytelling. While his movies tend to fall loosely under the umbrella of the comedic genre, the growth in intensity of violence across his films has, in recent years, had viewers wincing more and more. While Chow doesn’t ever show up on screen in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, his latest blockbuster belt-notch, the elements of his directorial handiwork are clear: the linguistic puns, foot-in-mouth jokes, potty humor and (in recent years) increasingly ironic and grandiose CGI action sequences are all there. Chow’s filmmaking has always carried a comedic element that flows from traditional Chinese comedy. Puns and toilet humor are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Chow’s comedic lineage derives from the extremes among these rich elements: language, rhythm, and, of course, action. Action, this time around, is different; the hyper-violent ways in which evil dismembers its victims reveal a darker element to Chow’s directorial vision—one that has, perhaps, been there all this time but reveals itself more characteristically with him behind the wheel. Babies are devoured, victims hung, skewered, from meat hooks, and slaughtered by grotesque weapons. These kinds of over-the-top images serve to accentuate Chow’s goal: to have the viewer simultaneously laughing, gagging and aww’ing, by the end of the film.
But Chow’s films have a decidedly postmodern (albeit commercial) flavor to them, evidenced by his willingness to satirize modern stereotypes by inserting them into his films.
The Fish Demon attacks Xuanzang
By allowing actors to speak in their native dialects, Chow allows for a multiethnic cinematic vision—one that challenges the harmonious and uniform standard Mandarin overdubbing of modern Chinese film. Actor and Shaolin Monk Shi Xingyu, playing the Fist of the North Star, another demon hunter, screams and cavorts in his rough-and-tumble, native Shandong dialect, while Show Luo (罗志祥) lisps through pretty-boy formalities with a Taiwanese accent. It pokes fun at one of the most commonly understood problems in modern China—the difficulty of communication. This linguistic conflict has always been an element in Chow’s movies—a long-running joke that pokes fun at the diversity of tongues in Chinese society. In Chow’s 2004 Kung Fu Hustle (《功夫》Gōngfu), Shi Xingyu plays a dying kung fu master who suddenly begins to blabber in English, and his fellow villagers yell that they can’t understand what he’s saying.
Even gender and sexuality in modern Chinese society seem to be an open target for Chow. Of course, all modern storytelling requires a romantic lead, and in Journey,
Shu Qi (L) and Huang Bo (R) as Duan, and the
Monkey King, learning to dance
it’s Duan (Shu Qi), a beautiful and simultaneously aggressive fellow demon hunter who pays more homage to Golden Swallow, the female protagonist of King Hu’s 1966 Come Drink With Me (《大醉侠》Dà Zuì Xiá), than the typical, coquettish damsel in distress. When asked to dance suggestively, she performs the only routine she knows, an aggressive martial arts form; ironically, it’s up to the Monkey King (Huang Bo) to teach her how to move with sensuality.
While Chow already tackled the Chinese legend of Journey in his 1994 film A Chinese Odyssey (《大话西游》Dàhuà Xīyóu), this new blockbuster brings yet another loosely related, modern reinterpretation of events that lead to Tripitaka’s voyage to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India. Journey is a somewhat schmaltzy coming-of-enlightenment story about Xuanzang’s (Wen Zhang) personal growth, from a whiny failure of a demon hunter, to an enlightened sage. The story is divided into three major parts, each involving the excising of one of the demons that will later join Tripitaka (or Xuanzang) in his quest for the scripture.
The story begins with a quaint fishing village, plagued by a giant river demon; the demon slaughters these villagers in the most exaggerated way possible and Xuanzang shows up, unable to destroy the demon. As he is clearly unable to stop the demon with the charms given to him—a book of 300 children’s songs—Duan subsequently appears, defeating the demon and saving him.
Xuanzang sucks out the spirit of the Pig Demon, while Duan restrains him with the Infinity Ring
Duan: Are you a demon hunter?
Nǐ yěshì qūmórén a?
Xuanzang: Yes, I am.
Duan: Based on what?
Píng shénme a?
Xuanzang: The Demon Hunter’s Handbook.
Duan: 300 Nursery Rhymes?
Érgē sānbǎi shǒu?
Xuanzang: It brings out the goodness in demons. We are all born naturally good. I also added in some of my own style.
Tā néng huànxǐng yāoguài nèixīn de zhēn shàn měi. Suǒwèi rén zhī chū, xìng běn shàn. Zài jiā shàng wǒ dú yī wú èr de yǎnyì.
Facing his master, Xuanzang finds no comfort in being taught to excise demons via love and nursery rhymes, effectively setting up the terms of his enlightenment. Each successive demon (one stronger than the next) and the trials required to overcome them, push Xuanzang towards his ultimate nature, the Bodhidarma, not just that of a mere demon hunter.
While Sung Fai Choi’s cinematographic handiwork isn’t anything spectacular, both the writing and the editing seamlessly accentuate the hilarity of the dialogue, often creating the effect of letting the camera run beyond the dramatic potential of the scene, as if the characters continue to argue with each other or speak beyond their designated lines. Often, any literary Mandarin is punctuated by modern (and often vulgar) phrases and dialogues.
Show Luo’s pretty-boy character Prince Important constantly mixes up the words “impotent” and “important”, in Chinese.
Prince Important and his irreverent followers
Listen clearly now! Don’t talk nonsense. Can you read these two words? It’s “impotent”! No, no, no, I meant to say “important”! I’m the Impotent Prince! No, no, no. I’m not the Important Prince, I’m the Impotent… Listen, you. I’ll have you know that at a young age, I was very impotent—No, I was very important!
Nǐ gěi wǒ tīng qīngchu o, huà bùyào luàn jiǎng. Zhè liǎng gè zì huì bù huì dú? Shì “shènxū”, bù bù bù, shì “kōngxū”! Wǒ shì Shènxū Gōngzi! Bù bù bù, wǒ bùshì Kōngxū Gōngzǐ, wǒ Shì Shènxū……wǒ gàosu nǐ o, wǒ cóngxiǎo shèn jiù……, bù, wǒ cóng xiǎo jiù hěn kōngxū!
你给我听清楚哦, 话不要乱讲。这两个字会不会读？是“肾虚”, 不不不，是“空虚”！我是肾虚公子! 不不不, 我不是空虚公子，我是肾虚……我告诉你哦，我从小肾就……不, 我从小就很空虚！
Buddha’s Palm strikes the evil Monkey King
As far as blockbusters go, Journey is a trend-setter; according to The Wall Street Journal, the film has grossed 762.3 million yuan ($122.6 million) since opening February 10, becoming the second highest-earning domestically produced movie in Chinese history. While Journey is entertaining, it is, simply, just that. If you plan on catching this film when it releases in the U.S., be prepared to be entertained but not much else. Chow gives us a one-of-a-kind action-comedy that fits snugly into his own acting style. The bells and whistles are amusing, the laughter contagious and the deaths brutal. It’s not Cannes material, but it makes for weekend fun and a good bit of language learning.