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Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back
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by Jay Seaver

"A new cast and new director means it's not quite the same."
3 stars

For all the noise some critics made last year about Stephen Chow’s "The Mermaid" being “hidden” because they hadn’t been paying attention to how release patterns and promotion for Chinese movies had changed, Chow’s previous film is the one that is truly overlooked: "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons" was a shockingly good take on an oft-told tale, providing not just the expected slapstick and action but some genuine horror and thoughtful romance that all but went straight to video in America. It’s a tough act to follow, even with fellow Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark in the director’s chair, although when "The Demons Strike Back" disappoints, it’s sometimes less for its actual shortcomings than for only being the movie its predecessor appeared to be.

As it opens, monk Tang Seng (Kris Wu Yi-fan) and the three demons that he and Miss Duan captured before - fish creature “Sandy” Sha Wujing (Mengke Bateer), “Pigsy” Zhu Bajie (Yang Yiwei), and Monkey King Sun Wukong (Kenny Lin Geng-xin) - are voyaging to India to bring the original 22 Buddhist sutras to China, and it’s not going well: Not only are they broke, but Tang is sick, and the demons are starting to figure out that he may not be able to summon the Buddha’s Palm that defeated the Monkey King at will. And there are monsters everywhere, whether it be a mansion infested by spider demons; Bi-Qiu Kingdom with its childish, rejuvenated king (Bao Bei-er) and lovely prime minister (Yao Chen); or Rivermouth Village, home of young songstress “Felicity” Xiao Shan (Jelly Lin Yun).

Chow’s 2014 movie was, in many ways, set-up for this one, a movie-long lead-in to Tang Seng going on the grand adventure for which the series is named, but the set-up it left was intriguing, emphasizing that Tang Seng’s traveling companions are not just mischievous spirits, but killers, with Sun Wukong having devastated Tang in particularly cruel fashion and not having the others’ backstories of being decent people driven to a demonic state by rage. That tension is kind of thrilling when Hark focuses on it - there’s real danger in the distaste that Tang Seng and Sun Wukong have for each other, and it makes Pigsy and Sandy seem like a little more than the simple comic sidekicks they are often played as. The trouble with that, in this case, is twofold:

First, the performances are all over the map. Kris Wu is a decent enough Tang Seng, capturing both the character’s insecurity at being found out as less powerful than he claims (and fully aware that his pacifist approach to subduing demons is going to look kind of silly to others) and how much he personally dislikes the monsters he is saddled with, even while playing up the comedy of this naive monk supposedly leading this band of demon-hunters. It doesn’t really mesh with Kenny Lin’s Monkey King, which is thuggish and angry, in line with the hostile characterization but without the whimsy or guile that often makes him memorable. That’s still a little more than Yang Yiwei and Mengke Bateer get to work with; the former is basically smarmy as Pigsy, seldom giving a hint that he’s a bloated pig demon under his good-looking exterior, and the latter tends to be smothered under make-up and special effects with the character just being kind of out of it. Things do get a boost when they reach Bi-Qiu; Yao Chen is given the character both obviously intelligent enough to be a villain and possessed of enough human foibles to be likable, and makes the minister fun to watch, while Bao Bei-er's King is entertainingly impetuous. Jelly Lin proves to be a great addition when she appears, not getting to flex her comedic muscles as much as she did in The Mermaid, but still tremendously winning.

The other problem is that, while the simmering conflict between the monk and the monkey never entirely pushes the fact that they’ve got monsters to fight to the back-burner, it’s such a constant presence that it can’t help but feel more important than the more episodic encounters. Since it’s kind of unlikely they’ll make Sun Wukong the final boss for two movies in a row, that means this subplot is either going to have to get resolved before the final action set piece or play out during it, and the writers (Chow, Hark, Lee Si-cheun, and others) decide to go with the least satisfying way to do this, making much of what’s been going on feel both unresolved and like a waste of time. They wind up taking their solid dramatic ideas and squandering them.

Still, despite how good the previous Journey was on that count, folks don’t exactly go to a movie with either Stephen Chow’s or Tsui Hark’s name on it, let alone one credited to both, for that sort of thing - they specialize in broad slapstick and over-the-top action, respectively, and both have always been fond of big visual effects and 3D. On those grounds, they’re pretty good - the film is peppered with good sight gags and fairly snappy comic timing, and the actors generally hit on the exact right amount of mugging for the camera. There’s a lot of wire and CGI assistance to the kung fu, but that’s to be expected in this sort of fantasy, and Tsui is better than many at staging this stuff inside a virtual world. The production designers and special effects crews build an enjoyably colorful world for the demons to play in, although as the movie goes on, things seem to get stretched thinner - the genuinely creepy spider-creatures of the first act give way to a “Red Boy” who looks like plastic, and that works better in terms of design than the Monkey King going full King Kong toward th end, when the render farms really seem to have a hard time keeping up with what Tsui asks of their operators.

As big special effects fantasies go, it’s still plenty enjoyable; Tsui and Chow are guys with anything-goes attitudes and the skills to make that sort of chaos work. Given that they’ve all but completely jettisoned the cast of "Conquering the Demons", maybe they shouldn’t have remained so attached to its story; every flashback or reference, especially the ones that feature Shu Qi, can’t help but remind the audience that this prtty good movie was spun off of a great one.

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originally posted: 02/07/17 01:38:38
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  03-Feb-2017 (PG-13)

  02-Feb-2017 (12A)


Directed by
  Tsui Hark

Written by
  Tsui Hark
  Stephen Chow
  Si-Cheun Lee

  Kris Wu
  Kenny Lin
  Jelly Lin
  Chen Yao
  Bei-Er Bao
  Yiwei Yang

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