Visuals are more dazzling than the storytelling in “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.” A qualified return to form for Hong Kong hitmaker Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle) after mushy sci-fier “CJ7,” this mostly entertaining action-fantasy-comedy about a demon hunter soars when pyrotechnics take centerstage, but is less successful when the focus switches to words. Nevertheless, “Journey” has gone bananas since its Feb. 7 domestic release and looks certain to crack the $200 million mark and overtake “Lost in Thailand” as the highest grossing Chinese movie. Commercial potential beyond Chinese-speaking auds appears limited. North American release details are pending.
The pic is the umpteenth movie inspired by Wu Cheng-er’s classic 16th century novel “Journey to the West.” The source material about the arrival of Buddhism in China provided the basis for “A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora’s Box” and “A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella,” domestic hits starring Chow as the mischievous Monkey King.
With Derek Kwok (“Gallants”) credited as associate director, “Journey” follows a simple pattern of elaborate set-pieces followed by brief pauses for reflection and explanation, not all of which are entirely compelling or convincing.
The first spectacular sequence shows young demon hunter Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) arriving in a fishing village during a gory, “Jaws”-like attack by the fearsome Water Demon. Chow’s knack for mixing suspense and slapstick is impressively displayed as Xuanzang leaps about rickety walkways and see-sawing bridges resembling the board game “Mouse Trap” before rescuing a baby just inches from becoming the creature’s next meal.
In one of several new ideas brought to the old tale by Chow, Kwok and six other credited writers, sensitive Xuanzang reads nursery rhymes to demons in the hope they will reject the dark side and join him as allies in the quest for spiritual enlightenment. His belief is that these beasties were once good-natured humans that suffered terrible injustice, and a lilting lullaby is all it takes to undo the damage. Watched by villagers as his technique restores the Water Demon to his previous human form as Sand Monk (Lee Sheung-ching), Xuanzang’s moment of glory is stolen by the sudden arrival of Duan (Shu Qi, “If You Are the One”), a feisty femme demon hunter with radically different ideas on creature control and a flair for showbiz that the nerdy Xuanzang lacks.
Duan invites herself on Xuanzang’s missions to challenge and change other demons — pig K.L. Hog (Chen Bing-qiang) and Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King (Huang Bo), an especially tricky customer who’s served 500 years of solitary confinement in a remote cave on orders from Buddha himself. While sequences such as Duan using her “Infinite Flying Rings” to disintegrate Hog’s minions at his restaurant-cum slaughterhouse are filled with razzle-dazzle CGI and exciting 3D effects, talk-based segs between showpieces too often lack the nimble scripting and heartwarming charm that distinguishes Chow’s best work, like 2001’s “Shaolin Soccer.”
The main problem is Duan’s wildly enthusiastic attempts to woo Xuanzang despite his avowed devotion to “a greater love” than what she’s offering. Pushing the opposites-attract notion a bit too far, Duan’s repeated declarations of passion for Xuanzang never ring true, and it remains a mystery why she finds him so irresistible. An early sequence showing Duan and her sexy comrade (Chrissie Chau) conspiring to activate Xuanzang’s libido produces chuckles, but variations on the theme prove far less mirthful.
Although Chow does not appear in the movie, his acting style and screen persona are writ large on the main cast. Shu is dynamite as the all-action Duan, Huang amuses as the eccentric Monkey King, and Taiwanese singer Show Lo scores big laughs as Prince Important, a narcissistic rival demon hunter with an entourage of soon-to-be-superannuated female sidekicks.
Where the helmer’s touch works least is the central role of Xuanzang. Mainland thesp Wen does nothing particularly wrong, but his perf as the nervous greenhorn feels Chow-lite, and his narrowly written character is less lovable than he ought to be. It doesn’t help that Wen sports a ghastly “finger-in-the-light-socket” hairdo more fit for a costume party than a serious young seeker of spiritual fulfillment.
The pic is beautifully designed and photographed in predominantly rich earthy tones by lenser Choi Sung-fai (“Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”). The orchestral score by regular Chow collaborator Raymond Wong adds plenty of punch to action sequences, but is slightly overused in the dramatic passages. The rest of the technical work is first class. Things conclude with a set-up for a sequel.