I'll be up front. As a fan of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, I was immediately interested in Journey to the West because of director Stephen Chow. Sold on seeing it, I went into the movie having no prior knowledge of its contents aside from his involvement. But as an American with little to no knowledge of Chinese classic literature, I was pretty perplexed by this odd adventure by its second act.
Journey to the West is an adaptation of Wu Cheng'en's 16th century novel of the same name. It pulls from Chinese mythology, as well as Taoist and Buddhist philosophy to unfold an epic tale of demons and demon hunters. As you might expect, Chow's translation of this sprawling narrative comes through the lens of an action comedy. His narrative follows a non-violent demon hunter named Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen), who favors reform of demons over slaying. With a book of nursery rhymes, he seems no match for powerful creatures like a water demon, pig demon and the fearsome Monkey King (Bo Huang). But his fate for greatness is sealed when he crosses paths with Miss Duan (Qi Shu), whose fearlessness and Infinite Flying Rings make her among the world's best demon hunters.
Despite its literary origins, the first act of the film plays out much like you'd hope for a Chow production. A riverside village plagued by a massive, man-eating fish calls upon demon hunters to free them from its tyranny. The battle between the villagers, demon hunters, and this water demon allows for a string of wonderfully bonkers action setups that are both hilarious and horrifying as Chow employs his unique blend of martial arts and slapstick with extravagant CGI. But when the film moves into its second act, sharp turns are jarring for those unfamiliar with this story. For instance, Miss Duan's 180-degree spin from being annoyed by Xuan Zang's pacifism to being so desperately in awe of it and him that she concocts an elaborate ruse to seduce him. Maybe if you've read the book, this makes sense. But to me, it felt stupid and sexist. Us women with our big dopey feelings, am I right?
A bigger structural problem can be found in the third act, where the Monkey King--essentially the boss level of this demon-defeating challenge--is finally revealed. An elaborate backstory is alluded to, but never satisfyingly explained. Essentially, Journey to the West is preaching to the choir, people who already know this story. So if you don't, be prepared for some head scratching. Leaps in the story telling in the final sequences are so severe that they signal it's an adaptation of a much bigger tale. But if you don't know the story already, that's your problem, apparently.
Aside from a story that doesn't stand on its own, Journey to the West is engaging and entertaining. Chow offers a slew of wild action scenes and lots of genuinely funny slapstick and visual gags, like a charm that forces one person to mimic the movements of another, leading to a hilariously flawed attempt at flirtation. The cast gamely takes on Chow's cartoonish style, playing emotions big and battle bravado even bigger. The monsters in the movie aren't high-quality CGI, but they aren't so badly rendered that's its distracting. Plus, their designs are creative and complex. There's a grandness to the action sequences, playful allusions to Jaws, and a great feel for the spectacular. It's just a shame its story gets lost in translation.
Basically, Journey to the West is devotedly wacky and pretty damn fun, but with out a fuller context, its final blow is bungled--at least for American audiences.