Friday, 10 February 2017

Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back (2017) - Movie Review

Even considering the filmmakers that I’ve already covered on this blog, Stephen Chow might be one of the single weirdest that I’ve come across. I say this because, from the works of his that I’ve seen, his cinematic expertise seems to lie in two very different and very conflicting thematic styles. He tends to stick to his own brand of martial arts shenanigans, as influenced by the Shaw Brothers as he is by Tex Avery, resulting in some incredibly energetic and cartoonish action scenes. Alongside that, he has a habit of injecting elements of Buddhist philosophies and a rather nuanced perspective on the matters of life and love, resulting in some remarkably touching moments and end-of-film codas.

These are two worlds that really have no business next to each other, which makes it even more perplexing when he does it well. And really damn well at that; Kung Fu Hustle got the man a lot of attention when it came out and for very good reason. So, with this sequel to his film Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, and Stephen Chow’s script being utilised by director Tsui Hark, how does this clashing of energy levels turn out?

The plot: Tang (Kris Wu), a Buddhist monk, is on a journey to India with his three disciples, all of whom are demons: The Monkey King (Lin Gengxin), the vain Pig demon Zhu Bajie (Duo Wang), and the Water Buffalo demon Sha Wujing (Mengke Bateer). On their mission of enlightenment, they come across a kingdom ruled over by a man with the temperament with a child. As Tang tries to assist in the matter, especially when it seems that demons may be lurking in the kingdom, it seems that the tensions between him and his disciples is about to reach a fever pitch.

Since it falls under my purview, and at the time of writing this we’re in the middle of a heatwave that makes getting even one review finished a tall order for a number of reasons, let’s quickly get into the first film. Now, it definitely has some good moments to it in terms of Chow’s brand of comedic action, particularly the opening battle with Sha Wujing and the finale where the film’s spiritual leanings come to the forefront, but the whole is difficult to recommend. This is because the majority of the humour, and relationship drama, is derived from Tang’s interactions with love interest Duan… and it’s basically the sort of thing that would get a person crucified if the genders were swapped around, with Duan going to near-psychotic ends in order to woo Tang. Like, staging a kidnapping that ends with Tang needing to prove his relationship with Duan in order to survive; said proof involves live consummation. It’s uncomfortable, to say the friggin’ least, but I still have to give credit in that everything we see ends up coming together to help make the coda of the film that much stronger. It’s not a bad film; it’s just a bit trying in order to get to the really good parts.

Of course, that’s still better than the story we get this time around: If it isn’t supposed to be funny and/or action-oriented, chances are that it just won’t be shown. Or, if it is, it’s done in a way that strips it of anything resembling pathos. As much as I didn’t care for certain individual moments in the first film, the ending proved that they were legitimately all leading to something bigger. Here, following the usual sequel mishap of wanting the audience to both remember and forget key moments of the original, it ends up spending a lot of time meandering through its scenes without any real reason in their existence aside from surface yucks/wows. This isn’t even something aided by hindsight once the film ends because said end is at a point of nonsensical that would make Zhong Kui blush. Hell, at least that ending had shades of philosophical weight to it; this, especially considering the original’s ending, has no such aspirations far as I can see.

So, what exactly made the first film work, at least by its end? Well, it took Stephen Chow’s usual slapstick musings on Buddhist philosophy and applied them to the concepts of “love” and “being worldly” that, when taken into account with how the demons became demons to begin with, creates a very nice sentiment. Here, any real philosophical touches are replaced with a far more generic narrative involving moving past the death of a loved one. Now, considering the two people most involved with that event (the main character being the widow and his closest ally within the group as the murderer), this existing on its own is fine.

The problem comes in once you realise that the impetus for these feelings to surface, that being a royal concubine that Tang becomes infatuated with, arrives roughly two-thirds of the way through the film. Up until then, it never gets brought up to the point where I’d almost say that this makes more sense if you have never even heard of the first film; this might be one of the few times when my usual research patterns have made a new feature less comprehensible. All we get is bickering and the odd bout of indecisiveness framed as being funny. You know, with how much everything seems to be falling behind and at least Chow’s knack for comedy is always dependable, maybe I should look there for some silver lining.

The comedy, built on the old-school archetypes of the main group, is honestly pretty good. It mostly consists of people saying weird things and the main group slapping each other around like ye olde Stooges, but the reason why I think it stands out is down to something that I discussed on this blog once before: Continuity. When looking at most modern attempts at spoof/parody films, or even a typical comedy, gags and comedic bits are usually treated like they’re in a vacuum from scene to scene: It happened, but there’s supposedly no need to dwell on it.

Unfortunately, this ends up creating disconnect when a character that you’ve established as having a severed limb suddenly regrew it between shots. Here, the fact that weird one-off things happen are kept within continuity as something that still took place, no matter how innocuous. This ends up creating a weird moment (for me, at least) where Tang getting crapped on by a bird ended up bringing the biggest laughs because it is referenced again in another scene shortly after. I don’t know if it equates to desperation or enjoying what I can get, but it’s appreciated all the same.

All in all, this is a serious letdown. The comedy is fine and the actors give a good bedrock for both it and the dramatic moments, but everything else feels like a watered-down version of the original, resulting in a film that seemingly wants to keep up with what made that film work but doesn’t seem to know how to. Maybe this is a result of Chow’s script being used by a director that isn’t him, but from going by the weakness of the story and characters here, I’d say that he has just as much to blamed for.

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