Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Monkey Business – Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Wen Zhang in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was an easy sell. I’m drawn to Asian cinema for the same reasons I’m drawn to Asian culture in general: its fascinating singularity makes for a completely fresh perspective. Watching a Hong Kong blockbuster like Journey, which has the honour of capturing both the largest single-day box office gross and the largest total international gross of any Chinese film (taking in $19.6 million and $215 million US dollars, respectively), is like biting into the pickled ginger that comes with an order of sushi: refreshing, exotic, and wonderfully palate-cleansing, especially after a long summer’s barrage of Hollywood values. Journey is a retelling of one of the four great novels of classical Chinese literature, which endure in Asian culture much the same way Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s Fables do in Europe and North America. It tells the story of Tang Sanzang, who gathers a posse of disciples to aid him in a quest to travel west and find a cache of ancient sutra texts, in his relentless pursuit of Buddhist enlightenment. This film adaptation is helmed by Steven Chow, best known for his wacky martial arts extravaganza Kung Fu Hustle, and in translating this ancient tale from scroll to screen he makes sure to include as much fun, sincerity, and humour in his interpretation as possible.

Tang Sanzang, played with serene haplessness by Wen Zhang, isn’t exactly your average one-dimensional mythological hero. He’s a demon hunter – a terrible one, of course – who trusts in his corpulent master’s assertion that the demons that plague the world shouldn’t be hunted and killed, but soothed of their anger and forgiven for their crimes. While a Taoist priest throws explosives into the river to rid a fishing village of one such watery pest, Sanzang sings it a lullaby from a book of nursery rhymes. Neither succeeds, and the saviour of the village turns out to be Duan (Shu Qi), a beautiful demon hunter who subdues the creature with cartoonish force, and takes an immediate shining to the guileless Sanzang. The film follows Sanzang as he travels Asia in search of what his master calls “that little something” that he seems to lack, and Duan as she follows Sanzang, intent on wooing him.

Wen Zhang and Shu Qi in Journey to the West
Chow’s unique directing style creates an immediately endearing mythological atmosphere, with larger-than-life characters and wonderfully elaborate action setpieces. The opening sequence set in the fishing village looks like China’s answer to MGM’s classic backlot sets, with bamboo catwalks and spinning waterwheels that fling characters through the air – and the locales only get more intricate from there. One ingenious contraption, a combination mobile pagoda and battle tank, is particularly memorable; Duan describes its pneumatic perpetual-motion propulsion system with such glowing pride that it seems as though Chow himself is bragging through her dialogue. This set also happens to feature one of the funniest sequences in the film, in which Duan stages an elaborate ruse to seduce Sanzang. Comedy is Chow’s other primary strength, and this is perhaps his strongest effort yet. Journey is an uproariously funny film, helped by enthusiastic performances from the cast and the tone of genuine merriment that flows from the screen. This makes the dramatic sequences, which otherwise might have felt glib, resonate with sincere feeling. Journey also presents a love story that is refreshing in its gender reversal tactics – the woman, in this case, relentlessly hounding the man – and a heroine who is immensely likeable, winning us over as slowly and surely as she does Sanzang.

While Journey is a film rich in visual variety, the quality of the computer-generated imagery is lacking for such a large-scale movie. Although the stylized, almost video game-esque visuals help soften the blow, it looks pointedly dated by Western standards, as though it were made ten years ago. I suspect most of the visual effects budget was blown on the final confrontation between Zang and Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, which reaches interstellar levels of scope, and where all the story points converge in an emotional and physical climax. I have rarely seen a film so adventurous, so effortlessly entertaining, so funny and so sweet. Classic tales like the great novels of Chinese literature are classic for a reason, and it’s because they contain archetypes and morals with which any human being can make communion. Journey to the West shouldn’t just be successful in China, because anyone can engage with this silly, energetic romp. It’s on Netflix, so I encourage you to take a trip West, and experience the kind of film Hollywood can’t always provide.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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