Movie Review – Surprise: Journey to the West

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EXPECTATIONS: A quickie cash-grab to get in on the current Journey to the West craze, thanks to the Year of the Monkey.

REVIEW: Monkey Magic! First off, I am not a huge Journey to the West fan, but I have seen lots and lots of incarnations whether on TV/film, but I have never read the famous source material. Not only because there are so many adaptations of it, but it has become a huge influence on popular culture. For example, Dragon Ball, by Akira Toriyama was inspired by Journey to the West, from the staff that Goku uses and even the cloud that he uses to travel on. Hell, even the new martial arts TV series, Into the Badlands, starring HK star Daniel Wu is loosely based on the novel. But my first experience of Journey to the West was the cult classic TV series, Monkey, which I had watched from old cassette tapes. Ever since I heard the incredibly catchy theme song by Godiego (who did the music for HAUSU!), I was hooked and I proudly own them on DVD. From my count, there are 5 film adaptations coming out in 2016 alone, and I had just watched one that came out in cinemas in December. It was a surprise box office hit in China, especially with its lack of star power and budget, but does the film itself live up to its title?

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The film starts off with the original team, consisting of Buddhist monk Tang Seng (Wilson Chen) and his disciples, the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Liuxun Zimo), sandman Sandy (director Joshua Yi) and the pig demon Piggy (Mike D. Angelo), who are on their journey to bring scriptures back from India. And on the way, they see magic being conjured above a small town called Stone Ox. From there, we are taken back a day, and we meet Wang Dacui (Bai Ke, who reminds me of a younger Huang Bo), a selfish, annoying cake delivery boy, who uses his minuscule talents as a demon (who can grow flowers) to scare the village to his advantage. He lives a peaceful life, whilst annoying other villagers, as well as his boss, Su Xiaomei (Yang Zishan, great in So Young and 20 Once Again) who has a low tolerance for any sort of hi-jinks. All is fine until a tiger demon attacks the village and the handsome local hero, Murong Bai (Ma Tianyu) saves the day. Unfortunately, he can only hold them back for so long, only to be held back by a dark secret. Sooner or later, it is up to Dacui, Xiaomei and others to deal with the evil that is threatening the town.

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Despite the fact that I’ve mentioned that the character of Dacui is selfish and annoying, most of the characters are selfish and annoying. But it is purely be design. Most adaptations of the source material had characters portrayed in a goofy fashion, and this film is no different. Most adaptations are usually portrayed as side-quests, a self-contained story that happens during the actual journey i.e  the Shaw Brothers films. Or they could be seen as a radically different interpretation of the source material i.e A Chinese Odyssey films. This film is the former. With some amusing touches of post-modernism (like a joke that references monikers of Hollywood names; the use of the term ‘horcrux’ from Harry Potter is used for some odd reason and there’s a karaoke scene too) and a surprisingly old-school approach (not a lot of CGI is used, especially when compared to other recent adaptations), the story is enjoyable to experience, and director Joshua Yi imbues it with energy and verve. Even the tone shifts between silliness and seriousness are handled with a deft touch that never feels truly jarring. One scene between Dacui and Xiaomei set in the nighttime is alternately comical and romantic in the right ways. Another scene involving Tang Seng, Piggy and Sandy shows them sending a message to Dacui of help, but Dacui interprets it as an epiphany is hilarious thanks to the editing as well as the handling of tone. It helps that the characters are worth following.

While the established characters are portrayed quite faithfully, the new characters are distinct enough to stand out on their own, becoming more likable and even identifiable as the story goes, even with its surprisingly short running time. Most of the thanks goes to the cast. Bai Ke is endearing goofy as Dacui who eventually matures and Bai portrays the transformation in a honest way. Yang Zishan is great as Xiaomei, exuding a lot of spirit as the love interest, and thanks to the script as well as her performance, her role actually becomes a lot more substantial as expected, which pays off in dramatic ways. The chemistry between Bai and Yang is palpable enough to care and enjoy, especially when they get antagonistic towards each other. The supporting cast are good in their roles, with Wilson Chen using his pretty-boy looks well as the effeminate Tang Seng and Mike D. Angelo as Piggy being amusing with his conversations among the others as well as Ma Tianyu who’s funny as Sun Wukong, without excessive overacting. There are some nice cameos from Eric Tsang, Tong Liya and others.

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As for the storytelling, the pacing is fast and furious, with just the right amount of downtime for character interactions/minor character development, but the film is all about entertainment, and it delivers on that front. But there are some flaws that prevent the film from becoming a great film. For example, most of the humour is very reminiscent of films directed by Stephen Chow and Jeff Lau that it can feel very derivative at times. Also, the post-modernism can get a bit annoying at times (the use of Hollywood monikers Scar-Jo and J-Law are used for no legitimate reason) and the political incorrectness can throw people off (all gay people and cross-dressers are hilarious for some reason). The action scenes in the film are done well enough, but they suffer from over-editing, which makes them a bit of a blur. Lastly, the climax of the film is a bit anti-climactic in how it resolves. It was a bit too quick for my taste.

Overall, this wasn’t as annoying or insufferable as I thought it was going to be, since comedic films from China tend to lean on these three factors: excessive overacting, jarring product placement and embarrassing political incorrectness. At least the first factor suits the tone of the film while the second factor gets hilariously lampooned in the end credits and the third factor didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Surprise: Journey to the West was just that: a minor surprise. If the rest of the Journey to the West films were like this, it might not be a bad way to go.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Game cast add life to the proceedings

The director adds energy and verve, with some good touches of humour (the end-credits lampoon product placement)

Nice twists in the story add great humour as well as make the film more substantial than expected

CONS

Annoyances like some overacting, political incorrectness and post-modern moments

The climax is a bit anti-climactic

Over-edited action scenes

SCORE: 6.5/10

Cast: Ke Bai, Zishan Yang, Tianyu Ma, Zimo Liuxun, Wilson Chen, Joshua Yi, Mike D. Angelo, Eric Tsang, Winston Chao, Tong Liya
Director: Joshua Yi
Screenwriter: Joshua Yi, based on the novel “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en

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