Review: Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back
Monk Tang (Kris Wu) is back with companions Pigsy (Yang Yiwei), Sandy (Mengke Bateer), and the increasingly unrestrained Monkey King (Lin Gengxin, aka Kenny Lin). Fighting demons and occasionally performing for necessities they end up at a kingdom presided over by a tempestuous and frankly juvenile King (Bao Beier). After the Monkey King screws up their latest performance before the tantrum-throwing ruler, they are banished from the Kingdom. However, all is not as it seems with the child-like King. Despite meeting her end in the first film, Shu Qi appears briefly to reprise her role as Monk Tang’s lady love in fantasy/dream sequences.
Based on the same tale that gave us the cult Japanese TV series “Monkey”, the Jackie Chan-Jet Li flick “The Forbidden Kingdom”, and of course the big-screen “Monkey Magic”, the 2013 “Journey to the West” was certainly nothing new. However, despite not being a fan of the slapstick-y “Monkey” TV series, “Journey to the West” actually worked for me, largely for being so incredibly weird that it was quite compelling. This 2017 follow-up from director Tsui Hark (“Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain”, the “Once Upon a Time in China” trilogy) and his co-writers Stephen Chow (who directed the first film as well as the extremely slapstick-oriented “Shaolin Soccer” and the enjoyable “Kung Fu Hustle”) and Si-Cheun Lee (“Triad”) is a real letdown. In fact, for the first 20 minutes or so, the slapstick-y tone was incredibly annoying and obnoxious, more “Monkey” than “Journey to the West” (or even the relatively straightforward “Monkey Magic” film which I rather enjoyed). It quickly got on my nerves and I was worried the film had lost me not long after it began. I won’t say I ever ended up a fan of it, but the weirdness carries it a certain distance, it’s brightly coloured, and the child (or rather child-like) King is hilarious. However, it mostly plays like a cartoon done live-action and is far too exaggerated and slapstick-oriented for me to fully embrace it.
The best thing about the film are the demons, even if it’s a bit on the nose that the majority of them take the guise of beautiful women. What’s up with that? Even if you put that aside, you have the King giving a reward of all the fugly ladies-in-waiting because he can’t bear to look at them. It’s a bit of a nasty, sexist attitude that even I must admit goes a tad too far. I’d also be interested to see what fans of the “Monkey” TV series and other versions of the tale think about the depiction of the Monkey King in this one, which seems rather darker than I’m used to (Also, fans of the first film might not like the almost entirely newly chosen cast, either. I must say I didn’t much notice that). Still, the creepy crab-walker is pretty weird and effective and the overall design of the demons is fascinating. The brightly coloured giant spiders were pretty cool, I must say. The colour gets a bit garish at times (as does the creature design) but it’s certainly striking to look at.
Bright colours, cool demons, and an hilariously whiny performance from Bao Beier are the strengths of this very silly, very slapstick fantasy. The silly, in-your-face comedy and some rather sexist attitudes had me at a bit of a distance, I’m afraid. It’s really nuts and I wish I liked it, but it’s overall just so-so. Less would be so much more, as even the first film wasn’t quite this over-the-top. Perhaps the meeting of two rather flamboyant filmmakers is the issue.