Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Kris Wu, Kenny Lin, Yao Chen, Lin Yun, Mengke Bateer, Wang Likun, Yang Yiwei, Wang Duo, Bao Bei-Er, Cheng Si-Han, Da Peng, Yeung Lun, Shu Qi, Zhang Mei-E, Xu Cai-Xiang, Lai Kai-Keung, Anthony Wong, Zuo Jing-Bo
Running Time: 108 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s only been 4 years since Stephen Chow helmed 2013’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the first movie in which he stayed completely behind the camera. Despite it being a relatively short period, it’s been more than enough time for the Chinese film industry to completely saturate the market with stories of the iconic Monkey King. Soi Cheang brought us The Monkey King and its sequel in 2014 and 2016 respectively, Jeff Lau delivered a third instalment of A Chinese Odyssey, and Derek Kwok (who co-directed Conquering the Demons) gave us Wu Kong. That’s not even touching on the animated versions. While audiences have likely become fatigued with the seemingly endless supply of adaptations, that thankfully hasn’t stopped Chow from going ahead with the intended sequel to his 2013 hit, and in 2017 it arrived in the form of Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back.
For those who thought a lot of changes were made in Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 2 (which notably replaced Donnie Yen with Aaron Kwok as the title character, even though Kwok himself played a major role in the original), then JTTW: TDSB (as I’ll refer to it from here on in) will make them look minor in comparison. Chow remains on-board as both the writer and producer, but has taken the decision to hand over the directorial reigns to Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark. On top of this, the cast has had a complete overhaul. Out is Wen Zhang as the monk, and in is Kris Wu, fresh from his stint in xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. Also out is Huang Bo as the Monkey King, replaced by Kenny Lin, who comes directly from playing the lead in Sword Master. Various other returning characters are re-cast, however to list every one of them would be superfluous.
The mention of The Monkey King 2 is intentional, as while Conquering the Demons adapted a rarely used chapter of the Journey to the West tale, the sequel puts us in distinctly familiar territory. Essentially it’s another spin on the same ground that’s covered in Soi Cheang’s 2016 sequel, which has the monk and his trio of demon disciples, one of which is the Monkey King, heading west to find the sutra’s they’ve been tasked with seeking out. Along the way they have to deal with a steady stream of demons that cross their path, as well as dealing with their own inter-personal relationships, which frequently border on murderous. In the hands of anyone else it would likely be a needless re-tread, however lest we forget JTTW: TDSB marks the first time for Hong Kong legends Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark to work together, automatically making it a milestone of Chinese cinema.
The simplest way to describe JTTW: TDSB would be to say that it’s The Monkey King 2 on steroids, a lot of them. Hark treats the screen like a canvas to go wild on, bombarding literally every frame with colour and motion, latching onto the fantastical elements of the story and cranking them up to 11. As an audio visual experience it’s a sight to behold, even more so in 3D, a medium Hark has embraced since first utilising it in 2011’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. I’m willing to say that Hark is the world’s best director at utilising 3D technology, and he’s stated himself in interviews that if a movie is shot in 3D, then it should be considered a 3D movie, not a 2D one. It makes sense when you look at his filmography, as he’s always been an early adopter of new technologies, and parts of JTTW: TDSB recall the CGI excess of his 2001 sequel The Legend of Zu.
With such an influential force of creativity behind the camera though, you can’t help but feel that Chow’s writing is often drowned out by the sheer volume of activity on screen. Chow might have stepped behind the camera for Conquering the Demons, but there was never any doubt that it was a Stephen Chow movie. The distinctive humour, the visual gags, and the perfect comedic pacing were all present and accounted for, and these elements are missing from Hark’s handling of the material. In a way it’s to be expected, JTTW: TDSB marks the first time for Chow to allow someone else to direct his own script with complete control, and the organic way he’s able to orchestrate laughs out of the most unlikely of situations is very much his own unique talent. However the end result is that it feels like more of a Tsui Hark movie than it does a Stephen Chow one, when most will have been hoping for the latter.
The changes in cast also aren’t favourable. Comedian Wen Zhang was the perfect fit for the nursery rhyme muttering monk from Conquering the Demons, and while Kris Wu delivers a performance that’s perfectly serviceable, he fails to bring the same offbeat goofy demeanour that Zhang did so effortlessly. The same goes for the Monkey King himself, and while in Conquering the Demons Huang Bo’s screen time is limited to the finale, he certainly left a memorable impression. Here Kenny Lin drops any primate like characteristics, and instead plays the human form of the Monkey King as a kind of brooding, twig chewing Man with No Name styled take on the character. Say what you want about how faithful his depiction is, but it can’t be argued that he’s probably the coolest Monkey King to grace the screen.
The presence which is missed the most in JTTW: TDSB though is Shu Qi’s short tempered demon hunter. In Conquering the Demons the relationship between Zhang and Qi provided the emotional core of the story, along with several of its most laugh out loud moments, and arguably Qi stole the show whenever she was onscreen. While she does appear in a handful of brief cameos (as a memory from the first instalment), the female characters in the sequel, played by Yao Chen and Chow’s latest muse, Jelly Lin, fail to bring the same level of spunk and charm. Instead it’s the relationship between Wu and Lin, as the monk and Monkey King respectively, which the focus is turned to, as both wrestle with an underlying need to inflict pain on the other. The dynamic is handled well, however there’s the inescapable feeling that the same relationship was explored in The Monkey King 2.
The fact remains though that if you’re able to put aside the fact that Chow’s influence has been significantly dampened, then there’s a lot to enjoy JTTW: TDSB. The sheer scope and scale of the various battles that take place are often jaw dropping, orchestrated by the pairing of Yuen Tak as action choreographer, and frequent Hark collaborator Yuen Bun as action director. Together the Yuen clan luminaries have taken the chaos of Hark’s imagination, and crafted it into a visual assault of action creativity. Much like League of the Gods, applying old school action talent to orchestrate new school digital action proves to be a winning combination, and the combat on display in JTTW: TDSB sets a new bar for just how breathtaking these scenes can be if handled correctly.
If Hark is to continue to be involved in the series, it would be great to see him co-direct with Chow. There are brief flashes of Chow’s trademark humour on display, which draw the desired laughs, however there are also moments that are easy to feel would be hilarious in Chow’s hands, but Hark seems unsure how to deliver the punchline. The perfect melding of the two would have Chow’s comedic timing, accompanied by Hark’s flair for visuals, which here peak in a finale that sees the Monkey King transform into a full blown King Kong style kaiju made of rock. While it might be missing the emotional connection of Conquering the Demons, what can’t be denied is that as a feat of pure spectacle, JTTW: TDSB more than delivers. For some that’ll be enough, for others, there’s always the sight of a pig demon and spider demon getting it on.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10