Parkour and Slapstick Comedy Combine in 'Journey to the West'
Fighting one's demons usually means overcoming inner turmoil, but at a place like Fantastic Fest, it's just as likely to involve trading blows with a 500-year-old monkey.
The latest kung fu comedy from Hong Kong director Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, follows scraggly-haired demon-hunter apprentice Xuan Zang on his path toward inner peace, acceptance of romantic love, and the spectacular obliteration of a simian samurai imprisoned by the Buddha himself. Unlike his well-armed spirit-battling contemporaries, Zang takes a humanistic approach: His main weapon is a book of nursery rhymes used to remind the monsters of their past lives.
As one can imagine, the demons aren't exactly terrified of the talking cure. Luckily his naivete earns him the romantic affection of experienced huntress Miss Duan, who defends him with a set of devastating magical flying rings and an impeccable sense of timing. Together the pair battle a baby-snatching sea monster, a killer pig who animorphs into a chef to roast his victims' flesh (crispy on the outside, tender on the inside!), and eventually that monkey king you've been hearing so much about.
If the plot sounds like a series of hero-cycle pleasantries, it should come as no surprise that the story is based on one of the most canonized texts in classical Chinese literature. But, not one to be bogged down by character development, Chow and his signature slapstick style owe more to Rube Goldberg than Joseph Campbell.
The elaborate sets are like parkour playgrounds built for both wire fu and wire farce. Each action sequence is scripted with bulletproof cartoon logic that makes ingenious use of the environments, effortlessly setting up and knocking down bewilderingly fun comedic punchlines amid the blood-splattering swordplay. It's a pure joy to watch a rickety fishing dock transform into a potential catapult for a razor-backed water demon, and when Zang's meek frame obviously isn't heavy enough to budge the lever, an obese villager vaults out of nowhere onto the seesaw to send the monster soaring through the air. The absurd approach to physical comedy works brilliantly, especially when set against the backdrop of dazzling martial arts and delightfully disgusting CGI monsters.
The masterful mix of self-aware humor and seat-gripping action broke box office records when the film was released in China in February, and although details on U.S. distribution are sparse, American audiences can only hope that Stephen Chow's latest masterpiece soon makes its own journey to the West.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons has its final Fantastic Fest screening Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 5:45pm.