Tall is hardly the word for costume fantasy "A Chinese Tall Story," which integrates intergalactic travel, spaceships, nods to Bollywood and "Star Wars" into an extremely loose reworking of the classic Chinese fable "Journey to the West." A moderate success on release last Christmas, this is a natural for fantasy fests, plus buff ancillary in the West.

Lau has been here before, in the two-part Stephen Chow starrer, “A Chinese Odyssey” (1995), which had a lot of fun interpreting the yarn in a much more faithful way. However, befitting its English title, “Tall Story” is simply a free riff on the characters — devout monk Tripitaka, and his pesky companions Monkey King, Sandy and Piggy — as they travel west to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. Aficionados of earlier Lau literary take-offs, like “The Eagle Shooting Heroes” (1993), will know what to expect.

While stopping at the Himalayan foothills city of Shache, Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse), Monkey (Chen Bo-lin, with just a mane of red hair), Sandy (boybander Steven Cheung) and Piggy (Kenny Kwan, ditto) are attacked by the Tree Demon and his insect acolytes. Amidst an orgy of CGI, Monkey gives Tripitaka his magic golden staff, which propels the hapless monk to safety.

Tripitaka lands among some lizard people who want to eat him, but he’s saved by ugly outcast Yue Meiyan (Charlene Choi, from Twins) who unfortunately also falls in love with him.

Tripitaka recovers in a Hobbit-like village, where he meets a runaway princess (Mainland cutie Fan Bingbing).Plot’s bare bones hardly do justice to the pic’s ever-shifting focus, in which almost anything (verbal puns, movie-buff refs, sudden digressions) goes. The whole potpourri works only thanks to the cast’s joyful playing (Choi is especially good here, as the larky Meiyan) and because Lau doesn’t let the visual f/x overwhelm the characters.

A fifth of the reported HK$100 million ($13 million) budget went on CGI, though the major blow-outs are largely at the beginning and end. Between times, Lau conjures up moments of tranquility and visual poetry which make the most of the scenic locations (largely in the national park of Shennongjia, in Hubei province) and allow characters to develop. Even when the visual f/x are at full tilt, it’s always clear — unlike in a Tsui Hark movie — what’s going on, thanks to comprehensible editing.

Other big bonus is the responsive, John Williams-like score by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, which propels the whole movie emotionally and makes even the CGI appear better than it often is.

A Chinese Tall Story

Hong Kong

Production

An Emperor Motion Pictures release (in H.K.) of an Emperor Classic Films presentation, in association with Western Movie Group, Xi'an Film Studio, Huayi Brothers Film Investment, of an Asian Premium Investment production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Yeung, Yan Yiyun, Wang Zhongjun. Executive producers, Albert Lee, Wang Zhanliang, Wang Zhonglei. Co-producer, Song Dai. Directed by Jeff Lau. Screenplay, Kei On (Jeff Lau).

Crew

Camera (color), Peter Ngor; editor, Wong Wing-ming; music, Joe Hisaishi; production designer, Bill Lui; art director, Eric Lam; costume, make-up designers, William Chang, Bruce Yu, Lee Pik-kwan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Kinson Tsang; special visual effects, Menfond Electronic Art; action director, Cory Yuen; martial arts director, Guo Jianyong; assistant director, Rosanna Ng. Reviewed on videodisc, London, March 23, 2006. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market; in Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Nicholas Tse, Charlene Choi, Fan Bingbing, Chen Bo-lin, Isabella Leong, Kenny Kwan, Steven Cheung, Hui Ying-hung, Gordon Liu, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wah, Wong Yat-fei, GC Goo-bi, Tats Lau, Chan Wai-min, Lai Yiu-cheung.
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