In an age when monsters run rampant across ancient China terrorizing mortal folk, shaggy-haired demon catcher Chen Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) sets out to subdue evil with his philosophy of forgiveness and love along with a slightly suspect musical mystic tome called "300 Nursery Rhymes." But his good intentions go tragically awry when he fails to save a family at a fishing village from a terrifying giant fish demon. Luckily, super-skilled, incredibly beautiful demon hunter, Miss Duan (Shu Qi) leaps in to save the day wielding her "Infinite Flying Ring", a size-shifting magic weapon that can multiply itself and cut through her foes. Disheartened by failure, Xuanzang is further flustered when Duan falls madly in love with him. In his mind romance is a dishonourable distraction from the pursuit of Buddhahood and the "greater love" of all creation. Following a pep talk from Master Nameless (Cheng Si-Han), Xuanzang sets out to slay another monstrous menace in pig demon KL Hog (Chen Bing-Qiang) who butchers human flesh for his cannibal restaurant. To defeat the beast Duan and Xuanzang seek help from the legendary Monkey King (Huang Bo) who has been imprisoned under a mountain for five hundred years for offences against heaven. Far from chastened however, it turns out the super simian bears a hefty grudge against Buddha.
Hong Kong comedian and filmmaker Stephen Chow Sing-Chi has a personal history with the oft-adapted sixteenth century novel Journey to the West and its principal protagonist Sun Wu Kong, a.k.a. the Monkey King. Among Chow's earliest career triumphs were his dual roles as Monkey and lovelorn bandit Joker in A Chinese Odyssey (1995). Jeff Lau's ingenious reinterpretation of the Monkey King myth has been ranked among the one hundred greatest Chinese films ever made with critics rating Chow's portrayal the definitive screen incarnation of this much loved character. So some trepidation surrounded the production of this new version directed by Chow himself with assistance from acclaimed newcomer Derek Kwok, co-director of award-winning kung fu comedy Gallants (2010). Happily, any anxieties harboured by HK film fanatics vanished once they saw the finished film. Indeed, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons became the highest-grossing blockbuster in Chinese film history.
Far from a remake of the still-peerless Jeff Lau classic, the film puts another fresh spin on this most enduring of all Chinese fables, albeit one that emphasizes its darker aspects to a surprising degree. Opening with the masterfully staged, incredibly suspenseful attack on the fishing village that pays explicit tribute to Jaws (1975), Chow confronts his unsuspecting audience with mass casualties, fountains of blood, child death, grotesque creatures and unsettling shock sequences that would not be out of place in a horror film. The film takes us back to a period in time before the famous characters from Journey to the West: Pigsy, Sandy and of course Monkey became the reformed but likeably roguish heroes beloved by children across Asia. Here these characters are amoral, bloodthirsty, downright scary monsters capable of shocking acts of brutality. Especially unnerving is Huang Bo's radical reinterpretation of Monkey. He switches from finger-snapping humorous hipster into a terrifyingly unstoppable, snarling simian entity who periodically morphs into a King Kong sized super-primate with a thirst for blood. It is a long way away from the cute mischief maker of Alakazam the Great (1960) or the cult Japanese television series Monkey!
However, Chow is not out to traumatize children or stomp on any childhood memories. These frightening new incarnations serve a greater agenda that reflects the true Buddhist spirit of the original tale along with its unwavering belief that even the most base and brutal creature is capable of attaining enlightenment. Much like Chow's earlier breakthrough hits Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Shaolin Soccer (2001) beneath the crowd-pleasing slapstick and moments of stark horror the film remains adamant in its philosophical outlook that love, benevolence and forgiveness are unstoppable forces that govern the universe and will inevitably reform all evil. Events come down to an ideological clash, or more accurately flirtation, between Duan who steadfastly believes demons only deserve a good pumelling and Xuanzang who stresses empathy is the only way to truly defeat evil. The kindly young demon catcher, who weeps uncontrollably over the death of a child he could not save, comes to discover that the demons are not simply monsters but are victims injustice. They are the metaphysical embodiment or anger, pain and resentment and you can't overcome those with a kung fu punch in the face.
Yet Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is also the story of how one man's spiritual ambitions blind him to the importance of romantic love. Xuanzang draws a distinction between "greater love", i.e. spirituality and the love of all creation, and "lesser love", namely romantic love and all its icky, messy physical and emotional complications. Interweaving allusions to A Chinese Odyssey, including its famous line "I will love you for a thousand years" and a lovely sequence where Shu Qi sings the theme song from the original film while dancing by the light of the silvery moon, Chow confronts his hero with the reality that so-called lesser love holds the key to unlocking greater love. There is no separation between the two. It is worth noting that Jeff Lau tackled these very same themes in his own idiosyncratic sci-fi re-imagining of the legend: A Chinese Tall Story (2005), although Chow's film carves its own distinctive identity.
Some film fans were disappointed that Chow chose not to star in this film himself but the fact is talented young actor Wen Zhang gives an outstanding performance hitting all the emotional beats. His transition from earnest buffoon to hapless lust object and eventual spiritual enlightenment is the movie's heart and soul. However, Wen has to use all his abilities just to keep up with one of the biggest names in HK cinema, heart-melting superstar Shu Qi. As Duan, she performs comedy with a manic energy worthy of Chow himself but also runs the gamut from giggling girlishness, feral rage and heartache. She also swaggers like a badass punching demons till their heads flatten and explode or else ripping them limb from limb. Going against all clichés about chaste, demure Chinese swordswomen, her ongoing attempts to get Xuanzang in the sack are hilarious. The high-point of the Shu Qi-Wen Zhang double act is undoubtedly the scene where Duan employs a magic spell enabling her to mimic the sexy dance moves of her more worldly sister (gorgeous swimsuit model Chrissie Chau, who seems to appear in every Hong Kong film these days). Things soon go awry when Xuanzang inadvertently inherits the spell and starts gyrating suggestively at Duan's none-too-impressed male minions.
As a director Stephen Chow performs a remarkable balancing act here combining weighty philosophical themes with his familiar slapstick comedy on an epic scale, heartfelt romance and breakneck kung fu thrills with a rip-roaring monster fest. His accomplished set-pieces hark to the high-wire thrills of vintage Steven Spielberg and Hong Kong masters like Ching Siu Tung. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is an impressive addition to the Stephen Chow canon and pulls off a mind-blowing cosmic finale on an even grander scale than the already impressively trippy conclusion to A Chinese Tall Story. Bow before Buddha.