Stephen Chow has more fun making movies than you do – and by “you,” I mean the average Hollywood director. Chow isn’t bothered by trends or popularity, weaving tales of ancient fantasies and magical worlds filled with powerful warriors, brooding demons, and colorful locales that breathe wonderful creativity. Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons is the latest film to exemplify our writer/director’s vivacious talents, as we’re hooked from the very first visual of a bright, lively harbor town full of charismatic townsfolk. We’ve become so used to dark, gloomy films like 300, Man of Steel, and every other overly morose action adaptation – enough of the darkness. Follow Stephen Chow on a Buddhist martial-arts adventure into the light, focusing on exploratory, original storytelling much like Kung Fu Hustle or Shaolin Soccer. Enlightenment is simply a film experience away…
In a mystical world where demons roam free, “demon hunters” wander in search of fame, fortune, and safety – unless you’re Buddhist Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen). Focused only on protecting his village from three evil demons, Xuan encounters many different characters throughout his journey, including an admirer named Miss Duan (Qi Shu). While most hunters use superior battle skills to defeat demons, like Miss Duan’s golden rings of death, Xuan believes in bringing the good out of each lost soul, freeing them from their malicious state – but his fights are usually a losing battle. As Xuan struggles to shine the light of Buddhism over a dark world, it seems like everyone else always saves the day, making him question his pacifist lifestyle. Can Xuan tame each demon and save his village? Well, more importantly, can he do it alone?
Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons is exactly that – a journey. A journey into Chinese filmmaking that American audiences certainly aren’t used to, exposing bountiful riches and cultural beliefs that make for an extremely different and satisfying viewing experience. Don’t misconstrue my words and believe I’m loving Stephen Chow’s latest simply because it’s unique. Call me a hipster, call me a phony, but Xuan’s quest provides viewers with a gloriously jovial watch that celebrates happiness, inner peace, and Buddhist methodologies while toying with more exciting demon battles and awe-inspiring visuals. Americanizing a film such as this would result in grimy, murky gore, overproduced dramatics, and a definite lack of humor – but Chow’s zen-like approach avoids every single landmine.
By industry standards, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons implements animation work that one might describe as childish, but focusing more on colors, character, and uniqueness fit perfectly with Chow’s world, which is full of rainbow patterns, hunters with monstrous calves and a swine assassin sick of seeing his brethren turned into breakfast. Briskly speeding along with the spirit of a Saturday morning cartoon, our warriors fight through different boss battles as if Stephen Chow structured his film as a lengthy video game, with each challenge increasing in difficulty – and enchanting curiosity. Watching Xuan, Miss Duan, and the rest of our hunters navigate their adventure with comedic gravitas and wildly riotous bouts of spiritually enhanced beatdowns emphasizes enjoyable ridiculousness over straight-edge, rigid thrills – prioritizing flair over structure.
It’s hard to categorize Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons in terms of American genres such as B-Movies, grindhouse, and other exploitative approaches, but like any good, self-aware film, Chow’s cast absorbs the surrounding energies during every encounter. Working with a large amount of green screen effects work, Qi Shu and Zhang Wen have tremendous fun playing their parts, but also balance serious moments of drama with humorous slapstick pace-breakers. Other actors have much harder tasks, be it Bo Huang’s Monkey King transformation or Show Luo’s comedic relief as Prince Important, striving to balance outlandish characterization with likeable characteristics – but all parties deliver engrossing, fairy tale like personalities that build a storybook atmosphere. As a viewer it’s almost impossible NOT to have fun while our cast acts every scene with the same peppy energy, mixed with Chow’s distinct directorial charm.
Stephen Chow is one of my favorite filmmakers thanks to a consistently seamless blend of monsters, mayhem, martial arts, and gutsy buffoonary, and Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons follows our creator’s winning formula down to the tiniest, vitally important detail. From ghostly spirit animals to a gigantic, battle-ready mobile fortresses, Chow refuses to overlook details that some would deem unimportant, tying his scenes together with explosive creativity possibly stemming from a cultural madman – a madman with morals and gumption. Stephen is able to make us feel like giddy children again, utilizing unbridled imagination to populate a script full of so much ass-kicking whimsy, but he also lays a powerful Buddhist message overtop, strengthening wishes of faithful belief and non-violent aggression. Plus, a cursed demon turns into a superpowered monkey king and challenges a whole clan of legendary hunters – while in monkey form. It’s almost as if Stephen Chow makes movies exactly for the not-so-serious action junkie that’s splitting time with my horror-loving soul…
Stephen Chow playfully blends feverish martial arts, cartoonish visuals and a wonderfully vibrant story that's more or less a Saturday morning cartoon for adults who love fantastical demon hunting adventures.