Film Review: Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back

Special effects dominate this account of a Chinese monk’s journey to India and the demons he encounters. Blockbuster sequel to Stephen Chow’s 'Conquering the Demons' has more action than comedy.
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Arriving with zero fanfare in the U.S., Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back continues comedian Stephen Chow's interpretation of one of Chinese culture's most famous stories. A sequel to 2013's Conquering the Demons, this effects-laden adventure handily won the battle for the Lunar New Year box office in China, earning over $105 million in three days.

Chow wrote and directed the first installment, but here the legendary Tsui Hark takes the reins, expanding on his CG work in films like Taking of Tiger Mountain and the Detective Dee franchise. The result? A lot of action, considerably less comedy and heart. And a new cast, featuring pop sensation Kris Wu as Monk Tang and Lin Gengxin as the Monkey King.

The Monkey King is usually the central figure in the narrative, but Chow focuses on Tang, an imperfect monk on his way to India to find enlightenment. In the first episode he took Monkey, pig demon Pigsy (played by several actors) and fish demon Sandy (Mengke Bateer) prisoner, but at the expense of the life of his first love, Duan (Shu Qi).

Now the demons are appearing in a circus sideshow exhibit, where they are sullen and uncooperative until goaded into revealing their true natures. Destroying the circus and everything around it in exhilarating blasts of energy, the demons then trail after Tang on a series of increasingly chaotic encounters.

The script, written by Chow, Hark and Kelvin Li Sizhen, draws from famous episodes in the original story. Tang rests in a mansion filled with alluring women, only to discover that they are demon spiders intent on devouring him. The ensuing fight is a marvel of FX and choreography, enhanced by silly 3D effects and nods to everything from Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation to Japanese anime.

The next stop is the kingdom of Bi Qui, where a white-robed minister (the glamorous but clearly untrustworthy Yao Chen) gives advice about dealing with a spoiled boy-king (Bao Bei’er) who throws tantrums much like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen. The Tim Burton allusions grow more obvious when the king is revealed as Red Boy, a bouncing ball of a demon with Transformer capabilities.

Hark directs the action scenes with skill, giving full play to a panoply of effects. Composer Raymond Wong accentuates scenes with everything from familiar Peking Opera themes to chestnuts from the Warner Bros. cartoon library. The production design is like a child's picture book brought to life, filled with bright colors, dreamlike buildings, and intricate designs hidden in every corner.

Largely missing is Chow's humor and heart. Every now and then some of his insane logic slips out, as when Yao Chen pretends to stage patently fake magic tricks. Tang's scenes with Felicity (Jelly Lin, star of Chow's The Mermaid), who could be an innocent songstress or a deadly demon, cut to the heart of the monk's dilemma as a Buddhist searching for enlightenment.

But overall, The Demons Strike Back is more exhausting than fun, an extravaganza of effects that could use some soul. Fans of Chow's comedy should seek out his earlier version of the story, A Chinese Odyssey.

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