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Surprise: Journey to the West
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by Jay Seaver

"Surprisingly and entertainingly irreverent."
4 stars

Though appearing on many American marquees as simply "Surprise", I think the full title of this movie is "Surprise You'll Never Think of: Journey to the West", and something appears to be lost in translation there. Think of it as "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", only for one of China's best known folktales, and you'll be on the right track: It's a very goofy take on material that can perhaps use a little puncturing, especially with about six "Journey to the West" movies coming out next year, and certainly does that pretty well, even if you're not that familiar with the story.

It is, you may recall, the story of Buddhist monk Tang Seng (Wilson Chen), who faces many travails attempting to bring scripture back from India with his disciples - Monkey King Sun Wukong (Liuxun Zimo), sandman Sha Wujing (Joshua Yi), and pig demon Zhu Bajia (Mike D. Angelo), and when they see some sort of terrible magic happening over Stone Ox Town... Well, back up a day, where we meet Wang Dacui (Bai Ke White), who lives peacefully enough in that town because he is a very minor demon who badly delivers sesame cakes for baker Su Xiaomei (Yang Zishan) even if he does consider himself the local demon boss. That's fine until a nasty white tiger demon attacks and local hero Murong Bai (Ma Tianyu), the latest of a long line of cursed guardians, can only push him back. That means it's soon up to Dacui, Xiaomei, and a de-powered Wukong to deal with the evil threatening the town, because the usual heroes are off the board.

I'm no expert, but I wouldn't be surprised if Surprise keeps enough of an actual Journey to the West chapter intact and recognizable; for as much as it makes every character sort of a goofball and most of them far more self-centered than many classically heroic figures (though being a super-cocky jerk is admittedly kind of central to Sun Wukong), the filmmakers have a pretty decent system for making it work: The problem is generally dead serious, but the solution and the road to it is funny. It keeps the movie going without getting bogged down, even if it does occasionally have the action-comedy moments that are more action than comedy at the climax, along with a bit of backstory meant to give Xiaomei more pathos than she or the movie really needs.

Most of the time, though, it is pretty darn funny. Director Joshua Yi (aka Show Joy) is not going for particularly subtle humor in making sport of a tale that is often played fairly light to begin with, as he and his co-writers fill the screen with lots of slapstick and visual gags out of a cartoon, and while that may have the actors sort of mugging for the camera at times, it also tends to work. They'll embrace the simple absurdity of the joke rather than work too hard for it to make perfect sense in context, or otherwise make an attempt to sell it. Some of the jokes are really goofy, and others are pop-culture references that sometimes translate badly when the filmmakers try (I think two characters were named "Scar-Jo" and "J-Law" in the subtitles as equivalents to them basically playing themselves, which is a stretch).

The cast tends to roll with it, too. The three leads are playing familiar Chinese comedy characters - Bai Ke is the cocky guy with too high an opinion of himself, Liuxun Zimo the cocky guy who can generally back it up, and Yang Zishan the girl some might not recognize as pretty because of her lack of tolerance for nonsense. They play off each other nicely, still getting laughs even as Dacui and Xiaomei go from getting on each other's nerves to falling for each other. Ma Tianyu does pretty well whether stepping into the middle of an action piece and doing stuff gracefully or displaying the sort of angst that's got some consequences. Wilson Chen, Joshua Yi, and Mike D. Angelo are dependably funny whenever the scene shifts to them, and there are some fun surprises elsewhere.

The action is pretty good, too; the guys in charge of that know how to do wire fu that is funny and often borders on slapstick without making it look obviously fake most of the time, so it doesn't seem too much of a shift when the fights get a little more serious. There's something of a tradition to how these characters look a little silly - honestly, who would really want a Zhu Bajie where the makeup design wouldn't look at home in an elementary school play? - so that's fine. And while the CGI in a Chinese movie that is not a Mojin-scale blockbuster can be a bit more like a cartoon than American audiences might expect, it works here.

As is often the case with Chinese comedies, I didn't laugh nearly as much as the majority of the audience that didn't need subtitles did, but I laughed a lot. "Surprise" takes the already-bizarre "Journey to the West" story to even sillier places, and it turns out to be well at home there.

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originally posted: 12/19/15 17:33:49
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User Comments

10/08/16 julie ellen funny cool take on a classic 5 stars
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Directed by
  Joshua Yi

Written by

  Ke Bai
  Zishan Yang
  Tianyu Ma
  Zimo Liuxun
  Wilson Chen

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