The latest action-comedy from Chinese writer/director Stephen Chow is a loose reworking of the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. The film tells the tale of an unshaven Buddhist monk named Xuanzhang struggling to master his humane style of demon slaying whereby he attempts to reform the monsters with nursery rhymes. In the process, he becomes the figure of Chinese legend that Xuanzhang is in the source novel. But in the way you’d expect a retelling of this tale by the director of Kung Fu Hustle (2008) and Shaolin Soccer (2001) to frame his story, Xuanzhang achieves his goals only through a series of unlikely, hilarious, and ever increasingly fiercer encounters with demons and demon slayers of all sorts. Moreover, for a bit of dramatic tension, Chow tosses in a comedically tenuous relationship between Xuanzhang and another demon hunter, the beautiful if romantically awkward and violent Duan.
When I think of Chow’s work that I’ve encountered thus far, my first association is with his cartoonish action, namely the hilarious, yet brutal action sequences that made Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle so exhilarating. And with Journey to the West, Chow’s propensity for hyper-stylized combat is on display from moment one, as the film opens with a demonic sea monster’s attack on a small coastal village that at one point finds an incredibly large woman catapulting said sea monster a hundred feet into the air using her immense girth. Although sometimes rather graphic given the film’s PG-13 rating, these scenes are alternatingly hilarious, shocking and even moving as Chow and co-director Derek Kwok temper the comedically stylized violence with the occasional unexpected death and emotional character breakdown. But what might have been a tonal inconsistency in any other film is really Journey to the West’s strength, for Chow alternates between comedy and tragedy with such frequency that it allows the film to be fun and exciting while creating real tension. After all, when a small child can be eaten by a demon in the midst of an otherwise ludicrous fight scene, it’s really anybody’s guess who’s going to get it next.
What’s more, by presenting viewers with some realistic consequences to violence (i.e. people dying) even amidst the film’s cartoonishness, Chow constructs a work that is surprisingly family-friendly in spite of its violent content. To that end, Journey to the West has got enough cool monsters, special effects and action to appeal to any kid without making the fighting look too cool, and yet it offers enough emotional and intellectual content to play well to the adults. As such, it’s not just an absolute blast to watch, it’s incredibly rewarding to boot.
Journey to the West is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment. It comes packed with special features and includes a number of language and subtitle tracks Mandarin, English, Spanish and French-speaking audiences. The only actual dub of the film on the disc, however, is the English dub, which I watched for about a minute just to see if it was tolerable, and I must report that it absolutely is not tolerable, not even for a minute. So stick with Mandarin language and English subtitles, I say. Granted, if you watch the film with your family, your kids may have a bit of trouble keeping up with the subtitles, but it’ll be good for them I’m sure, and a hell of a lot better for you.