No one out there right now is funny quite the same way Stephen Chow is funny. His trademark combination of Looney Tunes goofiness, silent film physical comedy and situational escalation, and massive, Godlike feats of computer generated martial arts (these days, anyway) is still his and his alone.
Journey to the West offers yet another solid display of these unique talents. While it lacks an actual Chow performance, there's no mistaking who made this film. There's one character named Almighty Foot. His foot is so big that he sits atop of like a stick coming out of a popsicle. Except when he's not using it. Then it sticks out of him like the appendage of a flipper baby. This is my kind of insanity.
The plot for Journey to the West is a little smaller than I expected. Chow stand-in Wen Zhang stars as Tang Sanzang, a young demon hunter who refuses to fight monsters with violence, preferring instead to sing them nursery rhymes in hopes of appealing to the human underneath the demon. It doesn't work. This pacifism makes him particularly ill-suited to capture an especially powerful and violent pig demon on the loose. To get the firepower he needs, he must travel to a massive Buddha shrine and gain the aid of the Monkey King, a mischievous demon who has been trapped under the shrine for 500 years.
Chow can fill out a two hour long film with this stuff because every sequence offers him an opportunity to just go nuts. He takes them all. There's one bit in the middle that must be a full twenty minutes long at least. It's basically all the same scene but it transforms from a hostage situation to a seduction scene to a goofy dance to a chase to a minor kung-fu showdown, all in what feels like real time. It just keeps going and going, delivering one joke after another, while also adding to the narrative. You begin to hurt from laughter.
The film's opening, in which Tang Sanzang battles a giant fish demon, is another good example. The sequence could have been just been a five minute long deal. With Chow, it's an endless series of gags that never exhausts our patience or its own energy and inventiveness. It's great to see good stories, but in the hands of a master, it's just as great to sit back and just watch what is basically a short film about a guy trying to save a baby from a hostile, determined fish monster.
The film features a lot of fun characters (each of whom could honestly have their own film) but revolves mostly around a trio. There's Tang Sanzang of course, but he's equally matched if not surpassed by Shu Qi as Miss Duan, a rival and very formidable demon hunter who falls in love with and endlessly hounds him to take her hand in marriage. Rounding out this group is Huang Bo as The Monkey King. Bo is incredible, somehow able to always convey a sense of goofy malice and weird physicality that keeps all his scenes pretty exciting. There are only a couple scenes shared by all three, but they are a joy.
Journey to the West only suffers in comparison to Shaolin Soccer and especially Kung-Fu Hustle. It never quite achieves the story cohesion and triumphant badassery those films offered through their Stephen Chow characters. Wen Zhang does a wonderful job, and you can see why Chow might be a bit too old and rascally to play this type of character, as Sanzang represents unclouded, wholesome altruism. His eventual ascension (not a spoiler if you've seen any other Stephen Chow films) is still pretty exciting, but perhaps not as exciting as those we've seen from Chow before.
Unlike other Stephen Chow movies, however, this one has Monsters, so there's definitely room for varying opinions on this score. Not that this comparison stuff even matters. The film is outstandingly entertaining. The idea of someone enjoying Stephen Chow but not liking Journey to the West surely defies some entertainment corner of physics. This is a big entry into the filmography, not an interesting diversion like CJ7 (which I also enjoy), making it one of the safer bets out there, so definitely see it if you get the chance. You will laugh your ass off. Then a couple minutes later you'll see the Earth-sized hand of Buddha crush a gorilla. Now go do what you must with those boners you just got.