Although Journey to the West is possibly the best-known, most important story in Chinese literature, it's been open to some seriously broad interpretations over the years. Stephen Chow's version, subtitled Conquering the Demons, is probably the loosest one yet, but thanks to Chow's epic, cartoony action set-pieces and his deadpan sense of humor, it's still a good time.
Seriously, anyone looking for anything even vaguely related to the original Journey to the West epic should just… not download this movie on VOD (it comes out today). Because instead of focusing Buddhist Tang Sanzang's journey to India to bring back holy scriptures, the film is more or less a prequel, where the massively haired would-be monk Tang runs around trying to reform demons with a book of nursery rhymes (it works just as poorly as you might think).
Although Tang spends at least much time running from fellow demon hunter Duan as demon hunting. Duan, played by the extremely funny (and lovely) Shu Qi, is an infinitely better demon hunter and is determined to win Tang's heart, although he doesn't want love to throw him off his path to enlightenment. Eventually the two meet a pig demon — named K.L. Hog, seriously —who's too tough for them, and Tang sets out to get help from the Monkey King, who Buddha imprisoned 500 years for being a deceitful asshole. Shockingly, the Monkey King is still a deceitful asshole, and this provides the film's third act.
But there's a lot of trademark Chow silliness before we get there, whether Tang is trying to save a baby from a giant fish demon, Duan is beating up demons whose faces not only cave in but sound like squeaky toys when they're punched, or an elaborate trap where Duan tries to trick Tang into having sex with her in public. It's a little weird.
Actually, the whole movie is a little weird. Despite all the physical and conversational comedy, there's weird moments of darkness in this film that clash with Chow's use of sped-up motion, and cartoon sound effects. It's not so much that it prevents you from enjoying the movie, but it's a large part of the reason Journey to the West doesn't manage to coalesce, which in turns prevents it from reaching the greatness of, say, Kung Fu Hustle.
That said, it's still worth seeing; Shu Qi, Whang Zen (who plays Tang) and the Monkey King (played with delightful goofiness by Huang Bo) are at the top of their game, and their conversations together would be hilarious even without subtitles; that's how funny they are. And although Chow relies more on CG and epic scope for his action scenes than in his previous, there're still entertaining as hell.
Overall, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is very good, but not great. It's still very much worth a watch if you've enjoyed Stephen Chow's previous movies. And maybe if Chow decides to make a sequel, he can actually include the damn journey