Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

  • Title: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
  • Country of Origin: China
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Released: 10 February 2013
  • Run time: 109 Minutes
  • Director: Stephen Chow (Hong Kong/China)
  • Stars: Shu Qi (Taiwan) Wen Zhang (China) Huang Bo (China) Show Luo (Taiwan) Christie Chow (China)
  • Available on: Netflix, YouTube Rental, iTunes, Amazon Rental, Google Play
  • Recommendation by Ian Magnuson

               When I was doing a bit of initial reading for this movie, I was warned that not having a background in Chinese cultural history would severely limit my enjoyment of the film.  Though I lost count of the number of times I chuckled and muttered a confused “what?”, I thoroughly enjoyed Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a Chinese film that serves as a sort of prequel to one of China’s oldest (circa 1592) and most well-known folk tales. A friend from Taiwan actually referred to it as possibly China’s (much older) version of Lord of the Rings in terms of its popularity.

               The story follows a young demon hunter by the name of Tan Sanzang (Wen Zhang), who is later the hero of the original Journey to the West storyline. He is essentially still in training and it is made evident by his frequent failures or, at best, partial victories, over a slew of minor demons throughout the movie. The fights with the demons are action packed and very artistic in their choreography. As an example, think of something akin to the lightsaber fights of the prequel Star Wars movies but with fancier camera work, as it is based on Easter martial arts swordplay. Also similar to Star Wars, the computer animated effects and monsters are very hit-or-miss. Sometimes it looks quite good but often times it looks cheap. It may just have to do with using such fanciful characters in a live-action setting.

Tan's first challenge is a water demon that is like a fusion of a tiger and a fish.

Tan's first challenge is a water demon that is like a fusion of a tiger and a fish.

              You could say this is an action movie but it's also filled with comedy. It’s got quite a few goofy/slap-stick points and a bit of wordplay (that I imagine are funnier if you understand Mandarin), and overall you’ll find yourself laughing as often as you’re holding your breath through the action sequences. One major thing I should point out though is the comedy indicates this movie is for children and teenagers but the action scenes are often bloody and violent so, to be honest, I don’t know who this movie is targeted at. It might just be my Western sensibilities rather than any criticism of the movie.

Duan, demon hunter, terminal bachelorette 

Duan, demon hunter, terminal bachelorette 

               There’s also a fun, but weird, romance sub-plot throughout the movie. A fellow demon hunter (huntress?) named Duan, played by popular Taiwanese actress Shu Qi, is much more competent than Tan and it seems her only inability is that of wooing Tan to be her future husband. He is solely focused on his goal of becoming a successful demon hunter and constantly rejects her throughout the movie. The roots of his stoicism/focus are one of the major examples Eastern religious themes that coat the movie. Journey to the West has strong influences from Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (though perhaps not really a religion itself, it’s an incredibly important cultural force in Chinese history).

               Overall, Journey to the West, has a bunch of memorable and fun characters, a very campy sense of humor, some great actions scenes, and a lot of material that might encourage you to learn more about Chinese culture and history afterwards, if for no other reason than to assuage your near-constant confusion that will likely take place. 

Stray Observations:

·        The folk tale Journey to the West was actually the main inspiration for the Dragon Ball series by Akira Toriyama and the similarities really shine in the humor and his journey to the Monkey King.

·        The Monkey King’s makeup work is pretty questionable and sort of reminds me of the original Planet of the Apes costume.

The Monkey King

The Monkey King

Review by Ian Magnuson, follow Ian on Instagram or Twitter @Magna_Sun

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