Recently ranked 19th among the one hundred greatest Chinese films of all time, this two-part fantasy epic is something you could only ever find in Hong Kong cinema. Written, directed and co-starring new wave filmmaker Jeff Lau, this spoofs “Journey to the West”, the classic novel most westerners know for inspiring the TV show Monkey (1979). However, between slapstick buffoonery and lovably awful puns, the star-crossed romance is genuinely affecting, the high-flying wire fu is among the best ever staged, and the script is full of allusions to literature, philosophy and classical Chinese culture. Imagine someone spliced bits of Hero (2003), Shakespeare and Andrei Tarkovsky into a Zucker Brothers spoof, and you get some idea of how bizarre and beguiling an experience this is.
Part One: Pandora’s Box begins with the Monkey King (Stephen Chow Sing Chi) and the Longevity Monk (Law Kar Ying) in the midst of their journey to the west, to find Buddha’s sacred scriptures. Sick of his master’s pious ways and annoying chatter, Monkey rebels and tries to hand him over to the monstrous, King Bull. As punishment, the Goddess of Mercy wants to imprison Monkey for eternity, but heeds the entreaties of the Longevity Monk, who nobly sacrifices his life to earn him a second chance. Five hundred years later, Monkey has been reincarnated in human form as Joker (Steven Chow Sing Chi sans makeup), leader of a troupe of desert bandits, who has no memory of his former life.
Joker and his bumbling bandits fall prey to two lovely, but deadly female demons: Spider Woman (Nam Kit Ying) and her sister, Pak Gwut-Jing (Karen Mok); whose name translates into a pun on the Chinese characters for “White Bone Spirit” and seventies’ disco superstars: “Boney M”! Lying in wait for centuries, the sisters plot to trap the Longevity Monk and consume his flesh to gain immortality, although Jing hints at a past romance with Monkey that ended in heartbreak. However, their suspicions about Joker prove unfounded, when they see he doesn’t have the unique birthmark on his foot that marks him out as the reincarnated Monkey.
Nonetheless, over numerous adventures Joker and Jing fall in love, until they fall afoul of King Bull. Trapped underground in the Water Curtain Cave, Joker discovers the time-travelling artefact Pandora’s Box alongside a prophecy foretelling his future as Monkey, while his bumbling sidekick (regular co-star Ng Man Tat) fathers a child with Spider Woman. Upon giving birth, spiteful Spider Woman tells her sister the baby is Joker’s, whereupon Jing commits suicide. Joker uses Pandora’s Box in his repeated efforts to prevent her death, each time arriving too late until he accidentally journeys five hundred years into the past.
Part Two: Cinderella begins with a recap of the conclusion to part one. Joker lands before a powerful, immortal princess (achingly beautiful Athena Chu), whose Chinese name: Lin Zixia translates into a double-pun on both the aforementioned fairytale heroine and iconic film star Brigitte Lin Chin Hsia. Playful, impish Cinderella steals Pandora’s Box and paints Joker with the three-dotted birthmark that will turn him into Monkey. Expelled from heaven, she and her shrewish sister are cursed by Buddha to inhabit the same body; one has control by day, the other by night. Neither sister has any idea of this, which makes things twice as hard for Joker when, after many adventures together, he draws Cinderella’s magic sword, inadvertently fulfilling a prophecy and winning her love. Denying his destiny, Joker tracks down Longevity Monk, Pigsy (Ng Man Tat, again), and Sandy only to tangle with King Bull, his wife Princess Iron Fan (Ada Choi Siu Fan) - yet another of Monkey’s jilted paramours - and their army of giant fleas. With King Bull plotting to marry Cinderella, and Jing re-emerging on the scene, Joker has to sift through the tangled web of reincarnations, time-meddling, and star-crossed desires in order to find his one, true love.
Jeff Lau makes ingenious use of the time-travel concept, replaying key scenes from different perspectives, with characters assuming new identities, changing events amidst a plot that springs continuous surprises. It can seem bewildering first time round, but the film seriously rewards repeat viewings with layers of profundity, subtle allusions to classic texts and shameless slapstick. Lau is wholly unique in his ability to flit from gut-busting gags like the moment Joker accidentally sets his crotch on fire and his men try to stamp it out (the look on Stephen Chow’s face after repeated kicks to the groin is priceless), to near-art house poetry that lingers long in the memory. His standout set-pieces are two, paralleled time-travel journeys, wherein Jing’s suicide is a tragedy that becomes comedy, while the amazing finale is a comedy that turns into heartbreaking tragedy.
An all-star cast ably handles the wide-reaching shifts in tone. This was the movie that earned Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow his first taste of critical acclaim and he was hailed as the definitive Monkey King, although each instalment really revolves around its tragic heroines. Karen Mok and Athena Chu, who delivers three different performances, are spellbinding - especially as the true nature of Cinderella’s mental anguish begins to emerge. Given we’ve hitherto been watching a goofy comedy, it is remarkable how moving her descent into frail, self-delusional madness becomes and a testament to Lau’s script and Chu’s abilities.
The mix of knockabout comedy, philosophical romance and wild special effects is one mirrored in Stephen Chow’s later, box office hits Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu (2004) - on which Jeff Lau worked as second-unit director. With animal-headed warriors, flesh-eating zombies, a giant spider, soul-sucking demons and a roster of mythological beings, A Chinese Odyssey more than satisfies as a fantasy epic, yet it’s the love story that really grips. It concludes on a thought-provoking and deeply touching scene, with a final line that became a catchphrase across Hong Kong: “I will love you for ten-thousand years.”