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Review: Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017)

Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back

西游2  伏妖篇

Hong Kong/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 108 mins.

Director: Xu Ke 徐克 [Tsui Hark].

Rating: 6/10.

Lazily written follow-up to Conquering the Demons  is totally different in structure and tone, as well as cast.

STORY

China, Tang dynasty. En route to India, young Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang, aka Xuanzang (Wu Yifan), and his companions Sun Wukong, aka Monkey (Lin Gengxin), Sha Wujing, aka Sandy (Mengke Bate’er), and the epicene Zhu Wuneng, aka Pigsy (Yang Yiwei), have set up a circus sideshow to earn some money for their journey. None of them has eaten for days, and Tang Sanzang, who still can’t forgive Sun Wukong for earlier killing his beloved Miss Duan (Shu Qi), is depressed and sickly. Tang Sanzang tries to get Sun Wukong to perform some tricks but the latter refuses; when Tang Sanzang goads him by calling him “bad monkey”, he runs amok, and the local villagers provide the group with money and food to get rid of them. Fed up, Tang Xuan suggests they split up, as their days of conquering demons are over. In a gloomy forest they come across a mansion with beautiful young women led by Wei Qinshi (Wang Likun). However, Sun Wukong realises they are actually spider demons and a giant fight ensues. Sun Wukong triumphs but Tang Sanzang again punishes him for disobedience. After an attempt by the companions to challenge Tang Sanzang’s authority, Sha Wujing is turned into a giant fish and they all continue their journey. Arriving at a city, they are welcomed by the high priestess (Yao Chen) who takes them to see the king (Bao Bei’er). The latter, who has taken too many rejuventaion pills, is like a child and forces the group to perform some demon-conquering tricks. Despite Tang Sanzang’s protests, they do; but Sun Wukong again goes too far, provoking the infantile king into revealing he’s really pesky warrior Red Boy in disguise. Sun Wukong eventually conquers Red Boy and the king’s true persona is restored. In gratitude he offers Tang Sanzang a dancing girl, Xiaoshan (Lin Yun), to accompany them on their journey. Tang Sanzang eventually accepts the king’s offer, though Sun Wukong warns him that Xiaoshan is not all she seems. Tang Sanzang ignores him, but when they arrive at Rivermouth village, Xiaoshan’s birthplace, things spiral out of control.

REVIEW

Though its Chinese title – literally, “Journey to the West 2: Vanquishing the Monsters” – tags it as a direct sequel to mega-hit Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons 西游  降魔篇 (2013), this  latest instalment in the long association between Hong Kong film-maker Zhou Xingchi 周星驰 [Stephen Chow] and the 16th-century Chinese classic is very different from its immediate forebear. Not only has writer-producer Zhou passed the directing reins to Hong Kong veteran Xu Ke 徐克 [Tsui Hark], and re-cast all the main roles, but also he’s come up with a movie that’s not at all the same in either content or tone.

This time there’s no compelling through-story or interaction between the lead characters: unlike its predecessor, which built a whole emotional fabric connecting the main roles, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back 西游2  伏妖篇 is lazily written and little more than a collection of monster-busting episodes. There’s none of Zhou’s optimistic, almost child-like, world-view or simple, humanistic approach to comedy. Even more notably, the direction by Xu has none of the space that Zhou often allowed his actors between the visual effects, often letting the camera just run as they riffed on their roles. As usual, Xu just turns in a professional, effects-driven directing job with no subtlety or give-and-take.

Most missed this time round are the contributions of Taiwan actress Shu Qi 舒淇 (as a fearless demon hunter) and Mainland comic Huang Bo 黄渤 (as a very human-looking Monkey King), both of whom brought a very special vibe to the previous film. Shu’s character, who was killed by Monkey, re-appears briefly here in flashbacks, in an attempt to provide an emotional reason for Xuanzang’s irritation with the pesky simian; but the flashbacks misfire by reminding audiences of the calibre of performance that’s missing in the current film. As Xuanzang, Lin Gengxin 林更新, who can sometimes be a rather wooden actor, is no substitute for Wen Zhang 文章, and Vancouver-raised actor-singer Wu Yifan 吴亦凡 [Kris Wu] is certainly no replacement for Huang as Monkey.

As the other members of the central quartet, Inner Mongolian-born basketball player Mengke Bate’er 蒙克•巴特尔 has the physique for Sandy but spends a large chunk of the film transformed into a giant fish, while Yang Yiwei 杨一为, as an epicene Pigsy, doesn’t register much beyond his heavy makeup. Overall, there’s a forced feel to the relationships between the four, with no emotional underpinnings.

It’s left to actress-comedienne Yao Chen 姚晨 and baby-faced actor Bao Bei’er 宝贝儿 to bring a real sense of style (Yao) and fun (Bao) to the film, as a high priestess and her juvenile king. In smaller roles, 20-year-old Lin Yun 林允 (Zhou’s discovery for his Mermaid 美人鱼, 2016) is OK as a dancing girl who may be a demon, and Wang Likun 王丽坤 (the best thing in Somewhere Only We Know 有一个地方只有我们知道, 2015) ditto as a slinky temptress who’s really a homicidal giant spider.

Widescreen photography by returning Hong Kong d.p. Cai Chonghui 蔡崇辉 [Johnny Choi] is fine, relishing the colourful opportunities in the production design by Japan’s Akatsuka Yoshihito 赤塚佳仁 (Warriors of the Rainbow 赛德克•巴莱, 2011; The Rooftop 天台, 2013), notably in the amazing Turkic-Central Asian toyshop folly of the king’s palace. Despite its faults, the CNY attraction romped to a box-office take of RMB1.6 billion, beating the previous film’s RMB1.2 billion.

CREDITS

Presented by China Film (CN), The Star Overseas (HK), Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), Xiangshan Zeyue Media (CN), Guangzhou Jinyi Film & TV Media (CN), Maxtimes Culture (Tianjin) Films (CN). Produced by The Star Overseas (HK), Greatest Act (HK).

Script: Li Sizhen, Zhou Xingchi [Stephen Chow], Xu Ke [Tsui Hark]. Photography: Cai Chonghui [Johnny Choi]. Editing: Xu Ke [Tsui Hark], Li Lin, Zeng Wuxin. Music: Huang Yinghua [Raymond Wong Ying-wah]. Production design: Akatsuka Yoshihito. Costume design: Li Bijun [Lee Pik-kwan]. Sound: Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang]. Action: Yuan Bin. Visual effects: Terminal FX.

Cast: Wu Yifan [Kris Wu] (Tang Sanzang/Xuanzang/Tripitaka), Lin Gengxin (Sun Wukong/Monkey), Yao Chen (Jiugong Zhenren, high priestess), Lin Yun (Xiaoshan/Felicity), Mengke Bate’er (Sha Wujing/Sandy), Wang Likun (Wei Qinshi, spider demon), Yang Yiwei (Zhu Wuneng/epicene Pigsy), Wang Duo (Zhu Bajie/animal Pigsy), Wang Chao (pig demon), Bao Bei’er (king), Da Peng [Dong Chengpeng] (Daoist priest), Cheng Sihan (wild monk), Yang Neng (villager), Shu Qi (Miss Duan), Zhang Mei’e (Wei Qinshi’s elder daughter), Xu Caixiang (Wei Qinshi’s younger daughter), Li Jiqiang, Huang Yonghui (Daoists), Michael (boy).

Release: Hong Kong, 28 Jan 2017; China, 28 Jan 2017.