The demons strike back, but not very hard in Tsui Hark’s comedic sequel.
“They’re all but kissing. Impressive, no?”
Stephen Chow’s 2013 comedic spin on the Journey to the West was, within the collection of adaptations, something of a departure. It was a prequel to the journey proper, but unlike most stories which focus on Sun Wukong and his early chapter shenanigans, Chow opted for a story centred on Tang Sangzang, allowing the usually dull main character a chance to shine in a way we don’t normally see.
However, by the time the story ended things were back on track for a more traditional telling of the story. Tang’s love interest Duan had been killed, the demons had been pacified and the final shot showed the four travellers on their way to fetch the scriptures. Would a sequel undo much of that character development?
2017 saw the release of The Demons Strike Back, which was a much more traditional Journey story, in that it featured our four protagonists travelling across Asia, encountering the usual villains, and finding themselves in the middle of a lot of interpersonal squabbles. In this adventure, they encounter the Spider Demons (because of course they have to), Red Boy, and the White Bone Spirit (with an entirely different and far more interesting personality) – all in the span of 100 minutes. Just one of those iconic villains would have been enough to fill an entire movie, but the story here chooses instead to look less at the demons themselves, and more at the relationship between Wukong (Lin Gengxin) and the Tang monk (Kris Wu).
As far as dynamics go, it’s the most commonly-explored in these adaptations, and while Demons doesn’t offer too much new, it’s able to find enough of an edge thanks to the previous film’s exploration of Sangzang. In Demons, he’s not a perfect man. Still haunted by visions of Duan (Shu Qi in a cameo), he is struggling to keep his team in check and lies to them about knowing the Buddha Palm technique that trapped Wukong. A Sangzang who makes his followers perform in a circus in order to get food is a more interesting Sangzang. This makes for a more interesting back and forth between him and Wukong, and flavours his interactions with characters such as the mysterious dancer Felicity (Lin Yun) more richly.
It’s all mostly played for laughs, of course. This is a sequel to a Stephen Chow film, after all. Zhu Bajie (Yang Yiwei) and Sha Wujing (Mengke Bateer) are there primarily for comic relief, to mixed results. Tsui Hark is a talented director, but his eye for the sort of wacky nonsense that made Chow such an icon isn’t quite as strong. The hallmarks are all there, though, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Hark had anything to do with this film at all. Chow’s comedic sensibilities are all over this thing, from the loud, shouty bickering to the Looney Tunes physics and cartoonish CGI.
Hark, much like Chow before him, occasionally lets the comedy get in the way of the story, and there are moments where the shenanigans smother everything else, turning entire scenes of The Demons Strike Back into unwatchable messes, until it decides to refocus. It’s great to see a sillier take on the story, and Tang’s numerous flaws are played for great laughs, but the jokes are still better when they’re in the background, or part of something else. Interrupting the flow of the story to have the three disciples scream for five minutes doesn’t make for the most exciting film.
In the end, it’s not a bad sequel to the original 2013, if a bit pedestrian in places. The cast is decent – though no one returns from the previous movie, sadly (and the least said about Kris Wu’s private life the better). Some visuals (notably the physical sets) are great, some are dogshit. The script has some inspired jokes, but is a total mess in its pacing. The action sequences are by and away the film’s strongest aspect, with lots of creative uses of the classic weapons, and the spiders actually fighting as spiders makes for some cool choreography. Seeing Wujing get the finishing (ish) blow on Red Boy with an ice attack was refreshing. It’s especially funny that he’s a fish for the majority of the time, flopping about uselessly like a giant Magikarp. It’s not the finest hour in the Journey I’ve seen, but it’s one of the more memorable ones, and not a bad continuation to the Chow universe. I’d have been excited to even see a third one.
Verdict: Dumb but entertaining, The Demons Strike Back discovers a journey is more fun when there are laughs to be had.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Major Demons: 3! Probably even more
Sha Wujing: One suit jacket away from looking like Lurch from the Addams Family
Red Boy: What a goofy, stupid and very fun design
Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017)
Also known as: 西遊伏妖篇 (Journey to the West: Demons Story)
Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Stephen Chow, Tsui Hark, Kelvin Lee, Wu Cheng’en (novel)
Kris Wu – Tang Sanzang
Lin Gengxin – Sun Wukong
Yang Yiwei – Zhu Bajie
Mengke Bateer – Sha Wujing
Yao Chen – Jiu Gong
Lin Yun – Felicity
Wang Likun – the spider demon
Bao Bei’er – the king.
Wang Duo – the handsome Zhu Bajie
Da Peng – a Taoist priest.
Cheng Sihan – Tang’s master
Shu Qi – Duan