Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Journey to the West: Conquering Demons (2013) Chinese New Year 2014

I was about a half an hour into the Journey To The West when I realized that what I thought was going to be a slam dunk Chinese New Year film wasn’t going to get a mention. The reason I thought it was a slam dunk was it was a Stephen Chow comedy based on one of the great works of literature and released during last year’s New Year period, so it was going to be perfect right? Wrong. It’s a wildly uneven film that kind of is the start of something but doesn’t really work.

I finished the film, tweeted a my disappointment and then moved on.

Or so I thought. Instead I got a tweet or two and an email or two saying I was crazy for not liking the film. Forced to pause and reconsider my position, I sat and thought and decided I really didn’t care for the film in total, but since people were actually taking the time to defend it I should take the time to write it up.

The film is a precursor to the main travels of Journey to the West. As the film open a water demon is terrorizing a village. When a Taoist monk kills a giant ray the town is thrilled, but Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang says they have the wrong culprit. The town doesn’t want to hear of it and beats him. However the demon instantly starts attacking the village once more and it’s up to Tang Sanzang to save the town. He does so with the help of Duan, an female demon hunter. From there the film moves follows as the monk and Duan try to stop a pig demon who is devouring passes by at a remote restaurant, and the fight eventually results in the release of the trapped Monkey King.

A very strange mix of low comedy and graphic bloody cartoony violence that pushes the film into horror film territory this is a very odd duck film. The film is largely a series of set piece battles linked together by a few exposition sequences. It’s a film of constantly shifting gears that made me wonder what was Stephen Chow going for.

Okay a moment of full disclosure I’m mixed when it comes to Stephen Chow’s films. When his films come together as in Kung Fu Hustle or Shaolin Soccer it’s magical. However when things don’t work the humor falls flat and the violence and situations seem nasty and ugly in the kids film which I would never show to a kid CJ7.

For me here the mix is wildly off. The comedy is frequently over the top and misses the mark. I don’t think I ever laughed at any point. I did smile but I never laughed. This is Benny Hill low brow humor at its broadest.

The action sequences are full of bone crushing violence that leaves body parts flying and fountains of blood flowing. Few horror films, even things like the Saw series, have as much blood in them. People die. Children die. While I have no problem with the violence or the blood or the death it’s so extreme that it works against the comedy. It’s hard to laugh at a film when two seconds after you’re laughing the characters are ripped apart.

To be honest I do like the demons are demonic. I mean they really would give Freddy Kruger a run for his money. While I’m not a scholar of the Monkey King and while I’ve not run across such and angry violent non jokey monkey king. When he battles Tang Sanzang he is a monster.

While I don’t have a problem of the Monkey King being monstrous , I think you would be too after being locked away for 500 years, I find the stark realism of the Monkey King being really a monkey being a bit jarring. The stories are not reality, they never were real world stories and having them suddenly operating in the real world with the spewing blood and flying flesh is kind of wtf. No that isn’t the problem, the problem for me is the realism crashing into the cartoon. I could have taken one tone not both, or I could have taken both if the blending was really blending and not seeming to be off/on shifts.

The problem with tone affects the end of the film as well. When Monkey is subdued by Buddha the calmness and all of that comes out of left field. Where did it come from?

While I understand it’s a marketing choice I’m ultimately kind of at a loss to know why the film is being considered a monkey king film. Yes he’s in the film, but he doesn’t show up until about 70 minutes into the action. Instead this is Tang Sanzang's story. The film is the start of the story and when the film ends it seems more to be amping up for further adventures.

Is it a good film?

In fits and starts. The film has moments that taken on their own terms are quite good. The action sequences, most of which run for 10 or 20 minutes at a clip would probably play better in a different frame work or better connected to each other. Being a tad generous its good not great. I don’t know how this would have played had I not known the story. I may have liked it better.

The film is being released by Magnet on iTunes,VOD and into theaters March 7

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