There’s a lot to unpack in Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, the next part of the legendary epic writer-producer Stephen Chow started in 2013 with the picaresque Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (the title says it all). That story pivoted on Taoist monk Xuanzang, or Tripitaka, and his encounter with Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, and his future disciples. Chow’s spin on Wu Chengen’s literary classic was an occasionally dark and very adult take on the tale that wrestled with the concepts of loss and the personal struggle with faith.
Neither of these films should be confused with Cheang Pou-soi’s 2014 origin story, The Monkey King, starring Donnie Yen, and 2016’s The Monkey King 2, with Gong Li and Aaron Kwok, which follows the segment of the Wu epic most of us are familiar with – the quest for the Buddhist sutras. Nor should The Demons Strike Back be confused with the film whose title it channels; this is not the superior sequel that The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars. That didn’t stop Demons from breaking single-day records in China for a domestic film and IMAX release when it opened on the first day of the Chinese New Year. Only Furious 7 has performed better. Notably, its earnings tumbled considerably on day two.
Though the film is a Chinese production, the real attraction is its status as the first ever collaboration between two Hong Kong film industry giants: comedy titan Stephen Chow, who returns to co-write and produce, and action maestro Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), who takes over directing duties. Demons’ performance in Hong Kong was pretty good given the holiday competition available in the city. Whether or not it bests the total haul of the first film remains to be seen.
But that’s not really the point of a Monkey King movie at this time of year. The mega-budget sequel and its completely new cast sees the Monkey King (Lin Gengxin, The Great Wall), Pigsy (Yang Yiwei) and Sandy (Mengke Bateer) doing their best to protect Xuanzang (pop star Kris Wu, recently seen in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage) from various flesh-eating demons in the earliest stages of the famous quest. Xuanzang and Monkey King are bickering like an old married couple now, Xuanzang still seething about the death of his beloved Duan, Monkey still seething about the binding curse. But through a series of exorcisms en route to locating the sacred scrolls, they come to an understanding.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Tsui’s turn in the director’s chair, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back is heavy on action and CG effects (supervised by South Korea’s Park Youngsoo), less so on the bitter, sweet, and bittersweet comedy of Chow’s first entry. For all the ridiculous set pieces of the first film, Tsui’s entry is even more cartoonish, coming ever so close to Tex Avery-style eye-bugging nonsense. It’s even more episodic than Conquering the Demons, with the thinnest of narratives imaginable stringing the segments together. There’s something cynical about Demons, feeling as it does, precisely like the kind of Hollywood sequel/prequel/sidequels so common now, which all carry the distinct aroma of a cash grab.
Though an early segment where the quartet must earn their keep as circus freaks, a production number (musicals are suddenly all the rage) and a throwdown with a venal minister (Yao Chen) are memorable in their own ways, there’s nothing to become invested in this time around, and as much as that failing must be laid at the feet of the script (co-written by Kelvin Lee Si Zhen), the charm and eminent watchability of the cast is at fault. Replacing Zhang Wen (as Xuanzang) and the stellar Huang Bo (as Monkey King) is nearly unimaginable, but to do so with a bland boybander and a non-descript, supporting B-action player was poor casting, to say the least. And while Jelly Lin was a delight in Chow’s Mermaid, she doesn’t quite carry off the subtle depth of the always-surprising Shu Qi (who has a brief cameo) as Xuanzang’s love interest, or rather temptation. Then again, she doesn’t really have deep material to work with. The less said about the leering, vulgar Pigsy and Sandy the better.
Perhaps most unforgivable is the change in tone. Absent, aside from Chow’s magnificiant absurdist humour, are the conflicting philosophical undercurrents that inform Xuanzang and Monkey King’s central relationship, and the ongoing friction between one’s penchant for tolerance and the other’s for violence. It’s a friction that drives the narrative and the themes, without which renders the film hollow and one-dimensional. Ultimately, The Demons Strike Back is a glittery, sparkly holiday diversion that really has no intention of being challenging on any level. That may be fine for some — it’s rated IIA, so it could be a family outing — but for others the sound and fury signifying very little of any emotional or thematic importance just won’t cut it. Chow and Hark can do better than this.
Now showing, Rated IIA; running time 109 minutes