Huang Bo and Shu Qi square off against an angry pig demon in "Journey to the West." Credit: Magnet Releasing
‘Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons’ Director: Stephen Chow Stars: Huang Bo, Shu Qi Rating: PG-13 3 (out of 5) Globes
Ten years ago, “Kung Fu Hustle” very belatedly broke Stephen Chow through in America. Alas, it was in time for him to slow down. A superstar in the East since the early 1990s, Chow was trying to phase himself out as a star, spending more time behind the lens. And yet he’s only directed two films since, and only acted in one. After 2007’s “E.T.”-ish “CJ7,” Chow returns to his roots with “Journey to the West,” a loose, giddy take on the Ming Dynasty lit classic that brings him back to the mix of martial arts and special effects that make the films look like live-action "Looney Tunes."
Chow himself, sadly, is nowhere to be seen. He’s replaced by Huang Bo, a more laidback, deadpan protagonist than Chow. He plays Xuan Zang, a modest demon hunter so lacking in gravitas that when he informs a riverside village that a deadly beast resides in their waters, they string him up. He’s routinely upstaged by Miss Duan (Shu Qi), a more feisty hunter who alternately berates and seduces him. The two wind up on the hunt for the deadly Monkey King, which also means they meet a pig demon and a sickly hunter named Lord Important (Show Lo).
Chow’s gifts are for marrying manic energy to outsized set pieces. People are but cartoons to him, to be manipulated with gleeful CGI. “Journey to the West” is comparatively light in this respect, with two elaborate showdowns bookending the film. The first slowly builds into a slapsticky, Spielbergian fever pitch, involving planks, a baby in peril and a very big fish (with a couple shout-outs to “Jaws”). The second features aggressive shape-shifting, including one old man whose left foot — and only his left foot — can grow in towering immensity.
What lies between isn’t as manic, but it benefits from Chow’s yen for silly, inventive plotting. There’s a routine Joseph Campbell budding hero routine running throughout, but there’s also reanimated corpses, killer bracelets, people bursting into dust and a guy who can’t get his fake arterial spray to stop spraying fake blood. (And while Huang Bo is merely affable, Shu Qi — a model and actress usually, as in the first "Transporter," used for her looks — forcefully steals the show.) These serve more as distractions, and “Journey to the West” only gets into transcendent grooves in spots. But even merely very good Stephen Chow makes you realize how little joy emanates from most of Hollywood’s outsize blockbusters. The world needs more of him more often.