Journey to the West is one of the pillars of Chinese literature, a work that has deep cultural roots and an almost impossibly expansive legacy. At once a comedy/adventure and philosophical/historical/religious text, the story and its place in Chinese culture really has no direct parallel here in the West. It’s become intensely commercialized, turned into comics, games, cartoons, television series and more, as well as having influenced and inspired works in other countries. While its always been a presence in the East, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest, particularly in the film world. As the Hong Kong film industry continues to expand, producing bigger and more lavish Hollywood-style blockbusters, the Monkey King character in particular has become a regular fixture of massive event films. 2013’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a juggernaut not just among this genre, but among all of Chinese cinema, grossing 215 million dollars worldwide, the highest box office return of any Chinese film ever.
With this kind of performance, it’s no wonder that a sequel is out. Of course, it’s a sequel in a slightly vague sense. The principal cast have all been swapped out, with only a few players returning for small cameos. The events of the previous film are mentioned here and there, but for the most part Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back is less concerned with directly continuing the narrative of the last film as using it as a jumping off point for lots of lavishly produced adventure and fun.
For the uninitiated, Journey to the West is the story of Tang, Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage to India and Central Asia to obtain sacred texts. Along for the journey are his three bodyguards and disciples, a trio of reformed demons who obtain enlightenment. Chief among these three, and the text’s most enduring character, is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Wukong’s story is longer than can be recapped here, but the short version is that he’s a temperamental, fiery-natured demigod who once threatened Heaven itself before being punished and imprisoned by Buddha. He becomes Tang’s disciple, taming his destructive instincts…….eventually.
The Demons Strike Back is not a film for audiences new to the Journey to the West phenomenon. It’s intensely referential to the original novel and myth cycle, and spares very little time for getting new audience members up to speed. Even someone with a passing familiarity to the source material will be confused at times, and it helps to go with someone familiar enough with the story and its characters to fill in the blanks. But to make things more potentially alienating to Journey to the West and Monkey King neophytes, the film also takes quite a few structural ques from its source as well.
It isn’t so much one solid three-act narrative as it is a series of episodes. This, of course, is lifted directly from the text, which was similarly made up of smaller episodic adventures and encounters. So for audience members looking for a sustained narrative arc, The Demons Strike Back may wind up being an odd, frustrating experience. The heroes will go to one location, engage in a spectacular battle with a seemingly random foe, then proceed on their merry way to the next comedy sketch or spectacular set-piece with very little connective tissue. However, this isn’t bad if you know what you’re getting in for and can approach the movie with a different set of expectations in terms of structure.
So for a lot of audiences who may randomly find it playing at their local repertoire cinema, The Demons Strike Back could very easily be a strange, alienating, supremely confusing experience. That doesn’t mean that viewers in that position won’t find something to enjoy, however. The production design and visuals are absolutely breathtaking, with sumptuously-designed sets and costumes, all presented in a bright and colorful kind of heightened realism (which is to say it isn’t realistic in the slightest). The film’s bombastic action set pieces are also a hell of a thing to see, growing in scope and scale until the feeling that we’re literally watching gods and higher deities do battle is all but inescapable. It should be noted, though, that this film’s computer effects may not be up the quality standards you’re used to. Though it has a massive budget, it’s clear that the special effects artists working on the most spectacular sequences of the film can’t match the visual fidelity of what you’d see in the latest Hollywood spectacle. Like with the story structure, you have to account for that going in and adjust your expectations. And while it’s true that the ‘realism’ of the CGI isn’t up to par with Hollywood, The Demons Strike Back makes up for that with furiously creative and energetic visuals. It doesn’t — or shouldn’t — matter that every image isn’t perfectly rendered to near-photo-accuracy. This film will show you visuals you’ve never seen before, spectacles that match and sometimes even surpass Hollywood’s output on a conceptual scale.
Writer Stephen Chow’s signature brand of frenetic, absurdest, Looney Tunes-style humor is on full display, and the legendary Tsui Hark takes over as director this time. The two make a good pair, with seemingly very complementary styles and sensibilities. The cast, made up of equal parts actors, pop-stars and a former pro basketball player, all generally do well in bringing their much-storied characters to life. In perhaps the most crucial role, Lin Genxin does a great turn as the Monkey King. He’s able to capture Wunkong’s fiery temper and unpredictable nature, at times languid and laid-back, but then snapping into manically-energized at a moment’s notice. Former Basketball player Mengke Bateer has a good, quiet turn as Sandy, another of Tang’s disciples. He doesn’t say or do much, but he has an oddly magnetic and intense on-screen presence, which makes it rather disappointing when he gets replaced by a giant CGI fish for around half the film.
Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back is the definition of “not for everyone.” It presupposes knowledge of a novel and myth-cycle and eschews a lot of structural expectations, which could easily make it intensely alienating for someone not knowing what they’re in for. But even if you don’t have a single blistering clue what’s going on half the time, give it a shot anyway. It’s a positive feast for the eyes, and not too shabby in the comedy department either, even if you’re missing half the context (there’s a terrific post-credits gag that everyone should get). Give it a chance and throw yourself in the deep-end of the Chinese Mythological Blockbuster pool. Even if you wind up drowning, it’ll be an interesting experience.