Are you tired of competently-made Journey to the West films? Don’t worry. Two Princesses has you covered.
“You’re a nerd. Even the teacher looks bad.”
I was somewhat spoilt for choice for quotes this. To pick just one that perfectly encompassed this masterpiece of incoherence was going to be impossible, so I chose a sentence that was as close to legible English as I could find. Ever since I started watching Asian cinema and TV I’ve encountered tonnes of strange subtitles, but almost all of them have been from the valiant efforts of fan-subbers who go to great lengths to make subtitle files for movies that haven’t (and likely won’t) get English-language releases, so I can’t exactly fault them.
Two Princesses, Journey to the West, however, is not one of those. It is an officially-released product and you can check it out right now on Amazon Prime. Not that you should, though. This is normally the part where I’d summarise the plot of the movie but, well, it’s kind of hard to even know what’s going on when the majority of the dialogue is written in what may as well be wingdings. The best that I can summarise is that the Tang Monk (Li Le) and his three disciples (Shu Tong, Fan Hao and Hua Qiao as Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, respectively) arrive in Tianzhu, where the local princess has been turned into a beggar and a demon has taken her place. [Edit: turning on closed captioning offers up revised subtitles. They’re not much better, but the English is at least understandable].
It’s a short one this time and all fairly by the book. Lady demon tricks Sangzang, kidnaps him and Bajie and Wujing stand around and do very little while Wukong saves the day. I guess it’s a mercy that the story is so simple, as it’s largely easy enough to follow without knowing what anyone’s saying. Don’t get me wrong: that’s got zilch to do with the quality of visual storytelling (we’ll get to that in a second) and everything to do with the fact of the premise simply being one of the more straightforward and dull ones I’ve seen in a long time.
First, something I liked: The costumes and makeup were decent. Nothing incredible, but perfectly serviceable for what appears to be a production made on half a shoestring. Oh, and the martial artists they got for the stunts weren’t half bad either. And that’s it. I’m on my third year of Journuary and sifting through the dregs of Amazon Prime whose Journey-themed offerings are abysmal and this has got to be a low point, not only for me but for poor Wu Cheng’en, who never asked for any of this when he wrote the book.
Possibly the most striking misstep, other than the subtitling, is the film’s absolutely hideous use of CGI elements. I understand the desire to put a bunch of sparkles and magical bullshit into your fantasy film, but none of it is necessary and when it’s done this badly all you end up with is either unintentional hilarity or some serious cringe. The one or two fights – arguably the high point of the entire experience – are marred because some dipshit chose this time to poorly follow an After Effects tutorial. At least this level of visual incompetence made for one of my favourite scenes, of a badly chroma-keyed Wukong hovering through some horrible composite photograph masquerading as an attempt at matte painting, and poor Shu Tong just awkwardly shuffling, shifting from one weird pose to another until something happens.
Because nothing actually happens in this movie. Not very fast anyway and considering its runtime of 64 minutes, it can’t really afford to take its time. It’s hard to care about even the silliest moments because every scene where something remotely interesting happens is bookended with highly tedious moments of watching Bajie eating, Wujing cleaning his megaphone or Sangzang just snoozing away. It feels less like a movie and more like backstage at a live performance of Princess Iron Fan. That would explain everyone’s absurd pantomime-like performances. Shu Tong is trying to channel some of the finer Wukong actors of the past, but just succeeds in bouncing and swaying less like a martial artist trickster ape and more like a sad drunk uncle. Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie are famously useless, but Two Princesses really takes the cake. After Sangzang is kidnapped for what must be the hundredth time in their journey they just decide that it’s all over and quit their journey, abandoning the usurped princess in the process.
Add into it scene transitions that merge into each other with little cohesion and almost non-existent editing and we have just this weird mess of a movie that barely limps past one hour. It’s easily the worst Journey to the West film I’ve ever seen, and yet I’d still recommend it over, say, The Monkey King because while it’s way worse, Two Princesses is at least a fantastic thing to watch with your friends. I don’t know how many times I paused to send a screenshot of what I was watching to my friends. It’s a masterpiece in its own weird, terrible way and will sit right up there with so-bad-they’re-good classics like Super Mario Bros or Mac and Me. And I’ll be damned if the ending shots of the cast and crew celebrating their labour of love wasn’t just the most endearing thing. It still sucks though.
Verdict: Two Princesses is to Journey to the West what The Room is to Marriage Story, for better or worse.
Overall entertainment: 2/10, or maybe 8? Who knows
Accidental comedy: 7/10
Actual comedy: 1/10
Nice visuals: That one of the desert wasn’t bad
Second favourite quote: “I am of the guinea pigs countries. True princess.”
Two Princesses, Journey to the West (2017)
Also known as: 西游记之真假公主 (Journey to the West, the True and False Princesses)
Director: Jia Kai
Writer: Gu Zhuang
Shu Tong – Sun Wukong
Li Le – Tang Sangzang
Fan Hao – Zhu Bajie
Hua Qiao – Sha Wujing
Pi Yijia – Yu Tu
Wen Qing – Tu Dipo
Liu Yanhai – Tai Shan Lao Jun
Chan Moli – Chang’e