Stephen Chow returns to Journey to the West to put his own spin on Tang Sanzang’s story.
“300 Nursery Rhymes?”
“It brings out the goodness within demons.”
Most adaptations of Journey to the West focus quite heavily on the breakout character Sun Wukong. After all, he’s the cool one with the best abilities and the most interesting story. But it’s the monk Tang Sanzang (or however else it has been Romanised) who is the key character – the one chosen by Buddha to collect the Tripitaka in India and bring it back to the east. So in 2013, Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok released their take on the story, focusing on Sanzang (Wen Zhang) as a young demon-fighting monk, whose peaceful nursery rhyme methods don’t gel with rival demon hunter Duan (Shu Qi) , especially after an encounter with Sha Wujing (Lee Sheung Ching).
They quickly encounter another demon, Zhu Bajie (Chen Bing Qiang) – whose scenes in the inn are some of the creepiest and most exciting of the movie – but are unable to defeat him. So Sanzang’s master (Cheng Si Han) tells him to find Sun Wukong (Huang Bo), to help bring the demon down. Shenanigans naturally occur as he encounters Duan, and several other strange demon hunters – one of which can make his foot enormous, for the purposes of martial arts. Not to belittle the work Kwok did on this, but it’s all very Stephen Chow, in the best possible way.
Conquering the Demons serves as something of a prequel to the second volume of the book. Instead of giving us a Wukong origin story – as is common in these adaptations – we’re instead treated to seeing how Tang Sanzang came to be. The adaptation ignores most of the guy’s family history from the book, instead giving us an origin that’s far more cinematic. In this version, it’s Sanzang (and Duan) who subdue the demons/eventual travelling party instead of the deity Guanyin. This actually works really well, and gives Sanzang more skin in the game early on and sets up a sequel quite nicely.
As evidenced in the quote above, this version of the story very much focuses on the redemptive qualities of the demons – specifically the three that would become Sanzang’s companions throughout his journey. After all, Wukong in this version is awful. He’s a real trickster, but also a total piece of shit who’s a far cry from the loveable mischief maker we know. But this works as it fits with Chow’s themes of redemption. The monk believes that the first demon Sha Wujing has good within it, much like he does the human-eating pig monster Zhu Bajie.
This is why his weapon of choice throughout the majority of the movie is a collection of nursery rhymes designed to bring demons back to their innocent infancies. And that’s where this adaptation stands out: by focusing on Sanzang and his philosophies, we’re given a character whose virtues are evident enough that it makes sense for him to be given the task to retrieve the scriptures from India at the end. Duan is an awesome character to be sure, but there’s no way she’s holy enough to be entrusted with the job. Sanzang proves himself worthy of both this immense task and of the audience’s respect.
But, of course, there’s another reason why this stands out above the other countless effects-heavy versions that followed. Chow again puts his well-honed manic comedic style into play, giving us some seriously funny and often extraordinarily dark moments. His application of cartoon physics works quite well, but the added inclusion of startling violence and gore makes for quite an interesting experience. Blood spurts like crazy, Sun Wukong pierces a gruesome hole in a giant foot, Duan punches these weird simulacrum humans until their skulls cave in. And a bunch of humans are stuffed inside pig carcasses and roasted. For what looks like a family picture, it sure gets morbid fast.
I mean, shit, a little girl gets straight-up eaten moments after seeing her father disembowelled. In the first ten minutes of the picture. It’s followed up by some Looney Tunes moments and some Pirates of the Caribbean action, and somehow it all sort of works. It’s kind of like the moments of violence in an Adult Swim cartoon, and the tone of the movie never feels thrown off by it. At the end of the day, if you’ve liked the work put out by Chow (especially the stuff from God of Cookery or Shaolin Soccer onwards) then you’ll definitely get a kick out of this. It’s not the most faithful adaptation of the novel, but it’s easily one of the most enjoyable.
Verdict: By having fun with its source material, Conquering the Demons allows itself to shine and is highly entertaining as a result.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Sex: Chrissie Chau’s out-of-nowhere dance/10
Closeness to source material: 2.5/5
CGI: Cartoonishly silly/10
Coincidences: Illiteracy to the rescue!
Music: Borrowing from Kung Fu Hustle?
Writers: Oh my god how many writers do you need
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)
Also known as: 西遊·降魔篇
Director: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok
Writers: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok, Xin Huo, Yun Wang, Fung Chih Chiang, Lu Zheng Yu, Lee Sheung Shing, Y.Y. Kong (screenplay), Wu Cheng’en (novel)
Shu Qi – Duan
Wen Zhang – Tang Sanzang
Huang Bo – Sun Wukong
Chen Bing Qiang – Zhu Bajie
Lee Sheung Ching – Sha Wujing
Show Lo – Prince Important
Cheng Si Han – Master Nameless
Xing Yu – Fist of the North Star
Lu Zheng Yu – Killer One
Chiu Chi Ling – Killer Two
Yang Di – Killer Three
Chrissie Chau – Killer Four
Ge Hang Yu – Killer Five
Fung Min-hun – Taoist Priest
Yeung Lun – Mayor
Zhang Chao Li – Almighty Foot