This is the second time Stephen Chow has been involved in an adaptation of material from Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel about the bringing of Buddhism to China, and while it isn’t as brilliant as the first, A Chinese Odyssey (Sai yau gei, 1995), it’s still a worthy successor. The previous effort was written and directed by Jeffrey Lau, whereas this one is written and directed by Chow himself. Chow doesn’t act this time, handing the lead role to Wen Zhang, who plays the monk Xuan Zang who will also be known as Tripitaka — a reference to Buddhist scriptures.
In this version of the tale Xuan Zang is a demon hunter who attempts to use nursery rhymes to tame demons rather than kill them. This method doesn’t appear to be very effective, and in his initial confrontations with a river demon and a pig demon he is rescued by a beautiful demon hunter named Miss Duan (Shu Qi). Miss Duan falls in love with Xuan Zang, and begins an amorous pursuit, which he fends off because he believes in the Greater Love of Buddha, not the Lesser Love of a woman. Much of this — both the demon hunting and the love story — are played for laughs, with plenty of slapstick pratfalls and borderline homophobic parody of gender norms. Yet mixed in with the comedy are martial arts, melodrama, and some pretty strong elements of horror, including references to Jaws in the river demon section. Chow does very little by half-measures, and while the killing isn’t gory per se, it does involve the death of small children and the emotional reaction to same. The film frequently shifts gears between slapstick and melodrama in a way that seems very Chinese to me.
Chow builds on the use of CG effects that he perfected in Kung Fu Hustle (2004), not only heightening the martial arts action as before but also creating a number of impressive animated creatures, including the fish, pig, and monkey demons who will become Tripitaka’s companions on the adventures into India that this film is the prologue to. The action of film is very good, and builds to an epic climax that even manages to up the ante on the Buddhist Palm finale of Kung Fu Hustle. I’m not sure whether this was released in 3D in China, but there were certainly sequences that looked as though they were designed for it. The visual design and effects are quite spectacular at times. The impact of the action sequences isn’t all about the CG either, as the brutality of the Monkey King, once he gets unleashed, is just as breath-taking as the river demon’s bloodbath at the beginning and not nearly as funny.
If there is a major weakness in this film I think it lies in the sexual humor and the love story, which at times seemed a little unfocused and tangential. However, it pays off big time in the end, so I’m actually not sure that it doesn’t work. In fact, the finale and denouement are really well crafted, creating both a visual and emotional (and perhaps even religious) sense of order restored. The religious aspect is interesting too, especially compared to films like the Chinese Ghost Story series from the ’80s where the Taoists get things done and the Buddhists are oppressive frauds. Here the Taoist priest is the fraud, and Buddha rules. Probably true to the novel, I guess, but I’m curious where the Party stands on religion these days. Well, I guess Buddha rules okay by the Chinese censors, because the ending is unequivocal.