Monday, June 8, 2015

Netflix Picks: Journey to the West

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2015 at 12:30 PM

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There's something to be said for making a live-action cartoon. 2013's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is director/writer Stephen Chow's tenth film, this time with help from writer/director Chi-kin Kwok. Chow's over-the-top action and eccentric characters reliably keep things fast-paced and fun – think Wes Anderson with lots of wire fu and CGI. This time, Chow is adapting part of Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West, one of the most important books in Chinese literature. Prepare yourself, the story moves fast and doesn't stop for anyone.

Journey is about Chang Xuan Zang's (Zhang Wen) growth from a pitiful but earnest demon hunter into a Buddhist monk. He's dedicated to nonviolence and the quest for enlightenment, but he's awful at hunting demons. Xuan Zang's nameless master (Sihan Cheng) teaches that demons should be tamed by nurturing the basic good in them, which, in Xuan Zang's case, means singing nursery rhymes. Though the nursery rhymes always fail him, his wits and his good nature see him through most of his adventures.

His greatest ally is a bold and braggadocios demon hunter named Miss Duan (Qi Shu). When she's not throwing magical gold rings and kicking demon-ass, she's raking in bounties and playing the big damn hero. Over the course of the film, she and Xuan Zang develop romantic interest in each other — she's not shy about sharing her feelings and admiration, but Xuan Zang believes romantic love is a lesser love to enlightenment. He rejects her advances and denies his own feelings at every turn. For all of Duan's pushiness and hilarious attempts to coerce Xuan Zang into marriage, her love seems genuine, and she believes in his dedication to good and kindness.

Together, they hunt a series of demons, from a river demon that would overwhelm Jeremy Wade and a pig demon with a wax face and a Sweeney Todd business model, to a monkey demon imprisoned by Buddha himself. In the end, all three demons are not only defeated but returned to human form. All become Xuan Zang's disciples to atone for their actions.

Chow is known for his blend of goofball humor and over-the-top action, and this movie delivers. The sequence with the river demon (Shing-Cheung Lee) has some of the best wacky wire-fu action in the movie, with Xuan Zang channeling a little Jackie Chan to save a baby. And the monkey demon, Sun Wukong (Bo Huang), oozes humor and personality, especially in the scenes where he's trying to trick Xuan Zang into freeing him. I feel like there's a lot of emotional nuance that's lost in the subtitles, but Huang's performance reads loudly enough to break the language barrier.

As for Duan, her doomed attempts to seduce Xuan Zang are funny, especially when she brings her minions into the picture. The “mimic charm” works wonders as physical comedy. Maybe it's not the most original shtick, but Wen and Shu sell it beautifully. Even some of the wordplay translates: a demon hunter named Prince Important (Show Luo) keeps mixing up “important” with “impotent.” It's a childish giggle, but even with fart and wiener jokes, if it's worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

The tone may be the only major problem with the film. Chow pings back and forth between goofy and serious so often and so rapidly that the emotions at the end feel less like a culmination and more like an obligation. For all the wisecracks, though, the idea of enlightenment is never made the joke. Chow tends to jump from comedy to emotional appeals in his other movies, so chalk it up to auteur and the cultural barrier. At the worst, it may make the characters harder to take seriously.

Some of the sequences do meander and lose the plot. The worst offender is when the climactic battle between Wukong and Xuan Zang stops partway through so Wukong can beat up three demon hunters. It's funny, but a serious tonal whiplash and a tangent at a plot-critical moment.

Though Journey to the West isn't Chow's strongest film, it's good. The CGI is budget, but the creature design is engaging, especially with the river demon. There's strong emotion in some places, too. But the main draw is a healthy helping of humor and action. It's a fun summer flick for a night in.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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