For audiences habitually hungry for visual feasts of movement and mayhem, lapping up Stephen Chow’s films can be irresistible. That unstoppable box office titan of Hong Kong cinema’s wired filmmaking flair is evident as ever in his ninth feature as director, the terrific Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a subversive fairy tale chock full of madcap morsels.
Loosely and playfully adapted from a piece of 16th century Chinese literature, Journey’s alternate universe is both storybook and hellish, a world overrun by repugnant demons tormenting and terrorizing civilization. On their (sometimes literal) tails is a small pack of demon hunters who combat them with a weapon too amusing to spoil here, but is safe to say puts an almost egregiously positive spin on the concept of hunting and capturing. The meek young amateur hunter Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang, in the role Chow might have played himself ten years ago) is a perfect antihero, whose constant need of saving drops in the palm of the far more adept Miss Duan (Shu Qi), with whom the inevitable romance blossoms as they endure battle after extravagant battle.
Journey to the West extends Chow’s brand of hilarious, over-the-top visual cacophony popularized stateside with a one-two punch of crossover hits, 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle. His latest is full-bodied fantasia, so dense with out-there goodies that expectations for the next wild set piece quickly double down on themselves and, for those seeking rambunctious action and comic-fantasy anarchy, pay off in droves.
Not content to slow its pace for too long, the wild rumpus begins immediately with an opening sequence that plays like the spastic B-side to Bong Joon-ho’s ingenious genre-defying 2006 monster movie The Host. Things only get zanier and more unpredictable from there. But for all the exaggerated facial expressions and flailing limbs, Chow keeps a high-wire balance with an intrinsic sense of pace that perishes all possibility of action fatigue. His films seem tailor-made for an A.D.H.D.-riddled generation of audiences, but in the noblest of ways. He dazzles with visual pandemonium and then sideswipes with genuine heart and pathos. It’s worth noting that the quieter, romantic scenes both here and in Kung Fu Hustle are as memorable, if not more so, than the whirlwind action. That’s not to say a moment of sweetness won’t be undercut by a profuse, Evil Dead II-quality geyser of blood. This is a Chow film, after all.
Chow’s marriage to the live-action cartoon model is so dedicated that even the shameless hocking of the cheesiest CGI effects likely to play on a movie theatre screen in 2014 don’t remove from the narrative so much as deepen the cartoonish immersion at play from the outset. The wonder of Chow’s work is it’s all of a piece, even its most tattered edges.
More often than not, Journey to the West has the same dizzying effect generated by the sprawling fantasy adventure stories Terry Gilliam used to communicate so well. Time Bandits and the criminally underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen were both formative films for impressionable youth in the 1980s. Journey to the West wields similar power. Chow’s sense of humor is universally detectable, combining slapstick with real wit, while his seemingly effortless ability to pack a frame with so much color and life demonstrates an important affirmation of film as altruistic entertainment.