Journey to the West Review

By Asher Gelzer Govatos


Journey to the West (2013)

Director: Stephen Chow, Chi-kin Kwok
Country: China
Genre: Adventure | Comedy | Fantasy
Official Site: Here

Editor’s Notes: Journey to the West plays in Toronto April 16th & 18th at The Royal Cinema. 

Early in Journey to the West, the new action/comedy retelling of a 16th century Chinese novel, there’s a moment when a group of villagers, hounded by a fish-inhabiting demon, attempt to move the giant fish to land by jumping onto what is essentially a huge seesaw. One, two, five men all attempt the jump at the same time, but fail to move the creature. Then out comes a young woman, very obviously gussied up in a fat suit, who barrels towards the lever screaming, jumps off, and finally manages to launch the fish into the air. In most movies this scene would register a 9 or 10 on the wacky scale, but it’s a testament to the delicious weirdness of Chow’s film that the scene seems to fit right in. Journey to the West is by no means a great film - it may not even be very good - but it is consistently offbeat and crazy in all the most entertaining ways.

Journey to the West is by no means a great film - it may not even be very good - but it is consistently offbeat and crazy in all the most entertaining ways.

Journey to the West (co-directed by Chow and Derek Kwok) centers on Tang Sanzang (Zhang Wen), a peace loving Buddhist monk who seeks to fight demons. Due to his pacifism he eschews the usual methods in favor of trying to bring out the goodness in these infernal creatures by (and here you’re just going to have to trust me) reading nursery rhymes to them. This shockingly proves ineffective, and in spite of the encouragement of his master (a hilarious Cheng Si Han) he finds himself getting in over his head. Several times he must be rescued by a bold woman, Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who hunts the demons for money. In spite of their disparate talent levels Duan falls in love with Tang and pursues him recklessly, leading to many comic situations involving the oblivious monk.


The plot here is fairly sporadic, essentially a series of comic and action setpieces. Tang and Duan wrangle with the fearful boar demon/master chef KL Hogg, who gets his pork so crispy and tasty by wrapping whole pigs, turducken style, around human corpses. They also encounter three other would be demon hunters: Fist of the North Star (who impersonates animals), Almighty Foot (who crushes demons with his blimp-sized appendage), and Prince Important, who’s really important (as he constantly reminds the others). After about an hour of rambling adventures, the film gains more shape as Tang seeks out the Monkey King to help him defeat the voracious Hogg.  The Monkey King (Huang Bo) has been trapped by the Buddha for 500 years, and constantly plots to escape his imprisonment. Though he helps Tang, he eventually breaks out of his prison, leading to a final confrontation that is suitably epic. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a monkey battle a mountain-sized statue of The Buddha, Journey to the West has you covered.

Though the last half of the film is more focused, it loses some of the charm that makes the first hour an absolute delight.

Though the last half of the film is more focused, it loses some of the charm that makes the first hour an absolute delight. The relationship between Tang and Duan - played for laughs at the beginning - turns more serious, but loses some of its zest in the process. And as the adventuring narrows to one confined space, Chow and associates have difficulty keeping quite the same lilt in the proceedings. By comparison the first part of the film zips by, offering a smorgasbord of strange and witty delights.

What sees Journey to the West through is its indomitable sense of joyful go-getting. It wears its low budget on its sleeves: the CGI would have looked dated in a late ‘90s PC shooter. It leaps from story point to story point with no regard for logic or coherency. Most of the performances are better classified as mugging than as acting. But all this is done with a wink and a nudge. The actors go over the top because Chow wants to lift this material to a fever pitch. He slaps bizarre facial hair and wigs on his characters (Tang wears a hairpiece that makes him look more than a bit like an Asian Carrot Top) and throws in random asides because, like any good showman, he’ll do anything for a laugh. The film wallows in its low effects budget, creating gloriously unrealistic scenes of people exploding and demons being beaten like squeaky toys. At every turn there’s something bizarre or ridiculous to make the audience incredulous. In the end Journey to the West is over the top, ramshackle, and a whole hell of a lot of fun.

81/100 ~ GREAT. Journey to the West is one of the stranger movies you are likely to see this year, but it’s glorious fun.
Asher Gelzer-Govatos fell in love with film in high school, where the one two punch of Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man opened his eyes to the beauty of the filmed image. Asher is the founder and editor of The Erstwhile Philistine, a culture site. He teaches history (including film history) at a charter high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he lives with his family.
  • Jack Henry

    Oh, man! I just watched the trailer to this. You know I love Wong Kar-wai and cinema realism but I can’t help but find attraction in the cheesy martial arts movies. Where did you go and see this, Asher?

  • AdamKuntavanish

    Any new Stephen Chow is a cause for celebration, and I’m glad you got on its loopy vibe. He’s one of the last great populist comedians, mixing his own brand of nonsense with an eye towards tradition by loosely adapting one of the most cherished pieces of literature in Chinese history.

  • Asher Gelzer-Govatos

    I had a screener Jack, but fortunately YOU TOO can enjoy the film - it’s currently available on iTunes. I think it may just be a rental at this point, but it’s worth it.

  • Chris D. Misch

    Love me some Stephen Chow. Shaolin Soccer is priceless, though CJ7 was kind of silly.

  • Asher Gelzer-Govatos

    I’ve been meaning to get into Chow for awhile now, but this was my first (though definitely not my last!).