The opening scenes of Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok’s fantastically weird Journey to the West gives you a good idea of what the rest of the movie will be like. First, in a scene that goes from playful to terrifying to comically gory, a young girl watches her fisherman father get consumed by a mysterious water demon. Then, the villagers kill a giant manta ray, thinking that it’s the culprit. But just as they start to think the water’s safe again, the real demon — a giant fishlike creature with huge eyes and giant fangs and long tentaclelike thingamabobs — shows up and starts to lay waste to the entire town. After a suspenseful back-and-forth, the demon manages to eat the terrified young girl and her mother as well. And then the real comedy begins.
Journey to the West, adapted extremely loosely from a very famous 16th-century Chinese novel, is one of those movies that dares to mix unspeakable horror with laugh-out-loud slapstick, high-minded themes with dumb humor. Stephen Chow, who also made a name for himself Stateside with the hits Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle, specializes in this kind of gonzo action comedy, and this is the most ambitious and spectacular movie he’s made yet. (It’s the first of a planned series of films based on the legendary novel. This one’s subtitle is Conquering the Demons.)
For all his popularity, Chow doesn’t star in this one. That honor goes to fellow superstar Zhang Wen, who plays Xuan Zang, a devout Buddhist and somewhat hapless aspiring demon-fighter who is convinced that even the most powerful demons can be vanquished if you bring out their inner goodness; his not entirely successful method for doing this is to sing them pop versions of nursery rhymes. Early on, Xuan Zang hooks up with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), whose preferred method is to kick the crap out of demons until they explode into clouds of dust. There are one-sided fireworks between them — she falls in love, but he’s preserving himself for a “higher love” — as they attempt to fight a cannibalistic Pig Demon and then the all-powerful Monkey King, a creature who has been imprisoned for centuries by the Buddha. Along the way, many lesser demons are pounded into dust, mountain Buddhas come to life, humans are roasted on spits, and an elaborate stunt involving a blood-spurting jugular goes horribly, hilariously awry. It’s a pageant of eye-popping strangeness.
Journey to the West works so well because Chow has a flair for grand comic-action set pieces, and his imagination seems to actually draw energy from these rapid-fire tonal shifts. Unlike Jackie Chan, who turns everything into buoyant comedy, Chow is at his best when juggling disparate elements – tragedy, slapstick, romance, melancholy, fantasy. Everything is big with him; he seems incapable of underplaying anything. The crazier his movies, the better. And Journey to the West might be the craziest thing he’s done yet. You may wonder, afterwards, if you dreamt it all.