Imagine being locked inside a cavernous Toys “R” Us store all day, or strapped to a roller-coaster for eternity. Sure, it sounds like fun, but it’s exhausting in reality. That’s what it’s like watching “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back” — the sequel to iconic Hong Kong filmmaker-comedian Stephen Chow’s boffo hit “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” written and produced by Chow and directed by Tsui Hark, who contributed to the screenplay with an assist from Kelvin Li Sizhen. The production rains a storm of visual effects, conjuring scene after spectacular scene of fantasy action, reflecting influences as diverse as Tim Burton and Japanese pop art.
The most kid-friendly of Chow’s films since “CJ7,” “Journey” leads the pack among the Lunar New Year blockbusters released in China, and may even break the record of highest-grossing Chinese film held by Chow’s own “The Mermaid.” However, Asian film buffs who have followed Chow since he left the screen to go behind the camera will recognize this as the least typical of his creations. Audiences won’t be in stitches one moment and reaching for a tissue the next. And while the prequel depicts enlightenment through empathy and reawakening one’s inner child, in the sequel, a spiritual authority that resembles a repressive regime purges a religion that advocates the free spirit.
Given the sea of Chinese films and anime adapted from Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel “Journey to the West,” “Conquering the Demons” is unique for shifting the traditional focus on Monkey to Xuanzang, the monk who spread Buddhism to China, and pioneering an “origin story” for him as a goofy idealist armed with a book of nursery rhymes for exorcism. The sequel, however, falls back again on dramatizing the most popular chapters in Wu’s classic, such as schemes by Spider Demon and White Bone Demon to devour Xuanzang, or the rivalry between Monkey and Red Boy. The new cast members that replaced accomplished comedians Wen Zhang and Huang Bo appear to be chosen mostly for eye candy and don’t break the mold of their star image. The story is less character-driven, and the comedy amounts to only a smattering of wisecracks, rather than evolving organically from personalities and interactions.
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Xuanzang, now simply called Monk Tang (played by former K-pop idol Kris Wu) funds his trip to India by ordering his reluctant disciples Monkey (Lin Gengxin), Pigsy (Yang Yiwei, Wang Duo, Wang Chao in various forms) and Sandy (former NBA player Mengke Bateer) to do street performances. But the trio has an uncontrollable violent streak which leads to a trail of wreckage wherever it goes.
Tang has his own anger management issues, judging by how he rains abuse on Monkey, whom he’s never forgiven for killing his first love, Duan (Shi Qi, turning up as a flashback memory). On one occasion, Tang and his pupils play a cat-and-mouse game to deflect murderous attempts on each other. It’s the most bona fide Chow scene in the whole film, treading the line between slapstick and uncomfortable nastiness with great tension.
Meanwhile, a spider demon (Claudia Wang Likun) and her minions stake out a mansion to ensnare Tang. A bonus to the vicious fights are the creature designs for the arachnid temptresses, whose grotesque sexuality channels Japanese pornographic anime and shunga erotic drawings to titillating effect, plus a cheeky nod to the carnivorous plant in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
From the kinkily adult, the film switches to indulgently infantile when the protagonists pass through the kingdom of Biqiu and are summoned to the court of the King (Bao Bei’er), who throws tantrums like a spoiled brat. With deeper character development, this figure could become a timely metaphor for authoritarian leadership. But the filmmakers go for easy laughs, rehashing a gag from the prequel, less effective the second time around.
Employing a dozen VFX studios including Korea’s Dexter Studio and Mofac & Alfred, the film’s two major showdowns, between Monkey and demigod Red Boy, turn the latter’s fire-wielding capability into a flame-themed, rock-the-house, CGI blowout. Tsui’s continued Japanese influences are seen in his representation of Monkey’s transformation into a King Kong-like kaiju emanating red laser beams like Godzilla. However, the bedazzlement and the bombast, under fever-pitch editing by Tsui, eventually strain the eyes without making enough emotional impact.
Wu, impressive as an entitled party official’s son in “Mr Six,” retains some of that irresistible cockiness, albeit in a toned-down manner. Lin, who starred in Tsui’s “Taking of Tiger Mountain,” among others, ditches the primate mannerisms adopted by his predecessors, instead rendering Monkey as a seething, testosterone-filled dude. He and Wu have jovial chemistry in a brawling bromance. As a high priestess, Yao Chen (“Monster Hunt”) is beamingly affable, but when she smiles, her lips curl up with deviousness. As Felicity, a royal consort who bewitches Tang, Lin reprises her role in “The Mermaid” without the chance to expand her range. Neither actresses could compensate for the absence of Shu Qi, whose irrepressible exuberance gave the prequel its soul.
Craft contributions are absolutely fabulous, particularly Yoshihito Akatsuka’s lavish production design, which, in a dream sequence featuring a Lilliputian version of ancient India, almost rivals a Wes Anderson film in its doll-house cuteness. And the palace of Biqiu boasts an Islamic-themed decor that’s breathtaking in ornate beauty. Choi Sung-fai’s lensing gains new luster with a rainbow-colored palette. Raymond Wong uses his punchy, Morriconesque refrain from the prequel to equally rousing effect here, while sound effects by Kinson Tsang prove more dynamic than before.
The Chinese title, “Subjugating the Demons,” is the opposite of the English one.