Look! It Moves! At The NYAFF: Journey to the West 2: The Demons Strike Back
Tsui Hark's latest movie, a collaboration with comedy writer-director Stephen Chow, is the manic, crazy, deconstructionist take on the Journey to the West saga: Journey to the West 2: The Demons Strike Back.
Nearly every Chinese person knows this story, as do the Japanese, who adapted it into the popular TV series Saiyuki — which was in turn dubbed into English and shown in the UK as Monkey. A Tang Dynasty fable based on the monk who traveled to India and brought the Buddhist scriptures to China, the story has him accompanied by Sun Wukong the Monkey King, Pigsy the gluttonous, lustful pig demon, and Friar Sand the fish demon. These companions liven up his journey into a Buddhist satire of Chinese bureaucracy, greed, avarice, and bad behaviour.
Journey to the West could be said to be one of the first superhero sagas: the team serve as itinerant demon fighters on their journey to Enlightenment, protecting the monk from demons posing as aristocrats and tycoons who believed eating his flesh would grant them immortality.
Journey to the West 2: The Demons Strike Back is a sequel to Stephen Chow's 2014 movie Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, and takes a revisionist approach to the heroes and their journey. Here they're like a dysfunctional family, with the monk barely able to keep the resentful Sun Wukong under control and the cracks in their relationship keep threatening tear the group apart. Sun Wukong, who thrives on mischief and chaos, thinks about killing the monk while Pigsy and Sand look on, bemused. The monk has doubts about keeping himself together to perform his holy duties, especially with a bad-tempered, near-invincible monkey demigod disciple making his life hell. And Sun Wukong is usually right when he accuses the people they meet of being demons.
With Stephen Chow writing and producing, and Tsui Hark directing, the pace is relentless as the heroes stumble from one encounter to the next, throwing insane ideas and CGI imagery like an endless parade of imagination. Maidens transform into giant spider demons, a childish king is exposed as a vicious demon that takes after a child's toy box, the monkey king takes a fight into the sky that sends the roof of a palace skyborne before sending it crashing down. The movie also shows something about Sun Wukong usually played down in other adaptations and even the original story: with his near-limitless powers and murderous temper, he can be terrifying. The CGI set pieces are always linked to the characters and Buddhist themes, and there's often a sense of tragedy and loss underneath them.
Only Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow would combine slapstick with massive CGI mayhem to turn a blockbuster into something that's anything but generic. The jokes may not always land, but the fights do. There are more ideas and invention in this one movie than the last five years of Michael Bay and Hollywood blockbusters.
Journey to the West 2: The Demons Strike Back is out on DVD and Blu-ray, and is currently on VOD.
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